In 1984, I road-tripped
with a couple of friends, following R.E.M.'s "Reckoning" tour along the
Eastern seaboard, and I saw some of the best rock shows I've ever witnessed
at venues like the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J.; the Agora Ballroom in
Hartford, Conn.; the Beacon Theater in New York, and the Orpheum Theater in
As a longtime fan, I've been eager for R.E.M. to revisit venues of this
size not only because of the superior sound and unrivaled intimacy, but
because I hoped it would spur the long-running alternative-rock pioneers to
return to the kind of artistic chances they took in those days, mixing moody
masterpieces such as "So. Central Rain" and "Harborcoat" with rambunctious
rockers like "Pretty Persuasion" and "Little America."
Twenty years later, we got a taste of that when R.E.M. performed at the
Auditorium Theatre on Monday during the first of a two-night stand. About a
third of the two-hour set found the group taking more risks onstage than it
has in a decade and succeeding, mostly during the songs from its strong new
album, "Around the Sun."
AT THE AUDITORIUM THEATRE
"Around the Sun"
"Begin the Begin"
"So Fast, So Numb"
"Exhuming McCarthy "
"Boy in the Well"
"So. Central Rain"
"High Speed Train"
"The One I Love"
"Bad Day "
"I Wanted to Be Wrong"
"Imitation of Life"
"Don't Go Back to Rockville"
"Losing My Religion"
"Life and How to Live It"
"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"
"Sitting Still "
"Leaving New York"
"I'm Gonna DJ"
"Man on the Moon"
The band stripped down to the bare essentials for a poignant acoustic
reading of "The Final Straw," layered eerie harmonic overtones via Peter
Buck's e-bowed-guitar on "High Speed Train," and allowed the subtle melodica
part to carry "The Boy in the Well," something that could never have
happened during last year's greatest-hits show at the United Center.
The group also played a show-stoppingly brilliant version of "So. Central
Rain," with Michael Stipe's vocals proving to be more powerful than ever.
(Bassist and backing vocalist Mike Mills didn't fare nearly as well when he
took a rare lead on "Don't Go Back to Rockville," which dates from the same
Unfortunately, through the other two-thirds of the show, R.E.M. simply
brought the overblown arena-rock act of recent years into a much smaller
venue, and this seemed to be exactly what many of the fans who'd paid $75 a
The crowd listened politely to the more challenging material, but it
hooted, hollered and danced in the aisles during the rote but obligatory
readings of hits such as "The One I Love" and "Losing My Religion." They
weren't at all bothered by the way "Bad Day" was a vastly inferior rewrite
of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and they
didn't seem to notice how silly the band's pushing-50 core trio appeared as
it tried to rock out during "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"
They also continued to accept Stipe's obnoxious and distracting
spastic-Kabuki stage moves. This act seemed absurd when he introduced it as
the band moved into the arenas 15 years ago, but you could accept his
justification that something so flamboyant was necessary to project in such
a big space. At the Auditorium, it was just annoying.
While Buck and Mills spend a lot of time in interviews these days
insisting that the current lineup of R.E.M. -- which is completed by drummer
Bill Rieflin and guitarists/multi-instrumentalists Scott McCaughey and Ken
Stringfellow -- has become a "real band," the spotlights that shone on these
newer members were dimmer by about a thousand watts, and their
contributions, including the drumming, were always subservient in the mix.
For that matter, though Buck was playing better and looking healthier
than he has in years, he and Mills also took a back seat for much of the
time to their flamboyant frontman, underscoring the sad but increasingly
accurate observation that the group has become the Michael Stipe Band, and
that the R.E.M. many of us first fell in love with -- the one that inspired
me to put 2,500 miles on my 1976 Ford Granada following it around back in
'84 -- doesn't exist anymore: in the arenas, in the theaters or anywhere
Opening the show was Now It's Overhead, a quartet from Athens, Ga., the
hometown the current members of R.E.M. abandoned years ago in favor of more
exotic locales. The group attempted to merge the mope-rock of bands like
Depeche Mode and the Cure with the psychedelic guitar assault of shoegazer
groups such as Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine, but it exhausted its
one good idea about a song and a half into an indulgent but otherwise
unremarkable 45-minute set.