A Wednesday Night at the 40 Watt Some 40 Years in the Making

(featured image courtesy of Nuci’s Space)

I wish you had been there at the 40 Watt last Wednesday night. Maybe you were and I missed you? It was hard to tell who was where in the crowd of six hundred or so people that showed up to stand in line briefly in the cold and rain. I saw a couple of folks in the back area, like mayors Girtz and O’Looney, Jeff, using the Christmas Tree as his own private theft proof corner, and of course all the usual gang. You know them, right? I’ll have to introduce you sometime.

I hope you got to see the light in John Cameron Mitchell’s eyes as he opened the show with “Wolves, Lower.” He was a marvel, he had 1984 era Stipe down pat, swinging his microphone, twirling, prowling around the stage. When he came back for “Stumble” I was delighted. What a perfect fit. He’s Southern, ya know. He gets it. I mean, Texas Southern, but still. A lot of people do these types of tribute shows and desperately want to do well but there’s something missing. Kind of like when folks outside the South try to tell us exactly who this band is. We know. They’re us. We’re them. That’s the point.

Did you catch Elf Power’s set at least? You know they’ve got a new album out. Yeah. Artificial Countrysides. I call it new because it came out this year, July I think. Andrew’s a cool cat and his students at UGA all really like him as a teacher. You should catch one of their shows next time. They’re probably my favorite of that whole E-6 collective. Never really my kind of scene but they did a great “Little America.”

It goes without saying that I may be a little obsessed with Pylon but c’mon. Pylon Reenactment Society KILLED that cover of “Crush With Eyeliner.” I’m fairly sure that performance legally transferred the song to Vanessa. If it didn’t it should’ve. And I mean bringing on Hugo, Mr. Gang of Fucking Four himself, on for a Mission of Burma cover? We have witnessed some magic, my friends.

Speaking of magic, Mitch Easter still has it for sure. I wasn’t expecting a genuine and earnest version of “Catapult” but here we are alongside Lenny Kaye and his fashion twin Peter Buck. You did see all of them as well, right? The whole band was on the left side of the stage, watching other people play their songs and doing it right. And remember the whole “this guy JCM GETS IT” thing? He did “Low.””LOW” for chrissakes. And he absolutely nailed it. He dedicated it to Jeremy Ayers and it made me so happy and broke my heart at the same time.

Yes, it’s on me that I didn’t realize who John Driskell Hopkins was but to be fair I don’t listen to a lot of Zac Brown Band either. But I’m happy to have gotten the chance to hear him do “Driver 8.” And when Pete looked over to him and said “Good job”… boy. I can’t even begin to imagine what that must be like to play onstage with the guy you grew up admiring and he approves of your performance.

An illustration by Lou Gervais in black and white of the band R.E.M. as they appeared in the 1980s. Peter Buck, Michael Stipe on the top row, Mike Mills and Bill berry on the bottom row.
Illustration by Lou Gervais

So that brings us to Kevn Kinney’s fantastic versions of “Fall on Me” and “King of Birds.” He’s been doing excerpts of “King of Birds” during the long stretches of his song “With the People.” He usually throws “I Believe” in there too. Pete and Bill are on his new album. I haven’t heard it yet but I’m looking forward to diving in over the holidays.

Scott McCaughey doing “Circus Envy” was nothing but pure joy. What a kickass song! Plus I’m pretty sure that’s the appropriate era if you want to be all thematic about it. He did basically join the band in the Monster era. And the rest of The Baseball Project doing “Me in Honey” was a personal highlight. Yes, technically over half the band was, ya know, THE band but one should never discount how good Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon are at what they do.

My friend is a huge Indigo Girls fan. I’m a casual fan but I was definitely not expecting them to do a single song and it be “Orange Crush.” It was intense. Onstage, blow you away, you’re singing along, the song is done, they’re gone. I still can’t believe it even happened.

“Everybody Hurts” belongs to David Ryan Harris now. That song has never sounded as good or as sincere as it did when he performed it. It’s one of the band’s “big three” singles and the one that is easiest to butcher. Go too hard into the message and you’re risking it being a downer, go too far the other way and it reads bitter and too aware of itself. But this guy took it and now owns it as far as I’m concerned. I realize I have no power to be giving away songs like this but I know if I took a vote that night he’d have walked away with it.

I do not care for “Superman” but if you ever need to summon Mike Mills you can just sing “I am, I am Superman” into a mirror while wearing a flashy jacket and he’ll crash through your bathroom wall like Kool-Aid man to finish the phrase. I refuse to believe that he doesn’t use this as his ringtone and that his ringtone isn’t on full blast.

The night is almost over but Darius Rucker has finally taken the stage. The man who famously sang “and Stipe’s not far behind” on one of his most famous songs is singing one of Stipe’s songs not four yards from the guy himself. I want to bottle the sheer glee on his face when Mills Supermaned onto the stage once more to provide backing vocals for “I Believe.” He rockets through this song like the pro he is and goes into “World Leader Pretend.” WLP, being a bit of a Cohen tribute being sung by Rucker at this tribute tickles that part of my brain that loves to make vague connections between things. I hope Rucker noticed Pete watching the entire thing from behind the curtain backstage. He was smiling.

We end the night of covers with another cover of another band. I’m still uncertain about ending the entire affair on “September Gurls” but then again we had at least three other covers of covers so why not? I’m already mentally reliving the night, trying to keep the highlights firmly front of mind. There’s Thayer Sarrano, more than holding her own on the keys next to these literal music legends. Over there is Mills lovingly draping himself over the piano as Scott plays, watching him with all smiles. The crowd is shuffling around, talking to the folks they haven’t seen in possibly three years now. I’m not ready to leave the night. It’s over too early for the usual Athens fare but then again we all have work in the morning and another show in Atlanta to see. There’s nothing quite like the hometown gig.


  1. Thank you! This describes the entire night. I was there on the side standing beside Michael and saw him say a quiet, “Wow”, when Mitch Easter began singing 1,000,000. Loved seeing Mike in his element, and Peter simply just wants to play guitar. Everyone was super nice, and there was so much love I couldn’t take it all in. My 14 year old self would have never imagined a night like that.

  2. Absolutely beautifully written. Reading this, I feel like I was there that night too. What an incredible dream it must have been!

  3. Yep, my umbrella – vital for waiting in the line to get in – was still under the tree after the end of a great night. Nice assessment of the show – I do wish something other than “September Gurls” had ended it. But only minor quibbles with a helluva fun night.

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