Live Review: R.E.M.

by Mitch Goldman

Omni Coliseum, Atlanta, GA 11/19/95

It's been a long, tough year for R.E.M ... their first tour since the lengthyGreen tour ended in late '89 has been fraught with health problems (three of thefour members were operated on), bad word of mouth, cancelled and postponed shows(culminating in the Tallahassee show which was cancelled when a tornado blew theroof off the local arena!). So it must have been quite a relief to roll intoAtlanta and play their three final shows on home turf.

I was certainly more than a little reluctant to expect a great performance. Afterall, the Athens band made a name for themselves in the '80's by playing some ofthe loosest, rawest, melodic shows in the post-punk era; after taking five yearsoff the road (and making a couple of mostly acoustic records, Out of Time in '91and Automatic for the People in '92), even the electric throb of last year'sMonster lp did nothing to whet my appetite. When you've been part of the momentin history when everything clicks, it's hard to relive that synergy. Luckily,R.E.M. opted for a more polished, tighter sound, rather than trying to recapturethe chemistry and energy that made them a legendary live outfit, an energy thathas been all-but-dispersed by their recent recordings and lack of touring. Anddespite reviews from earlier in the tour (which started in February inAustralia), the band performed old and new tunes with enthusiasm and commitment.It doesn't really compare to the '80's shows, but then, it's an unfaircomparison...it's almost like two different bands. By adding two additionalguitarists (and a violin player for the last handful of shows) the band opts fora more full reproduction of their recent sound, rather than the looser, lessfully-realized configuration of their days as a four piece.

R.E.M.'s second night of their tour-closing three night stand in Atlanta seemedto satisfy both old and new fans. It's easy for them to please the newer fans, asthose folks have nothing to compare the recent shows to. But for those of uswho've seen R.E.M. perform positively apocalyptic shows in the 80's, it's quite atask for the Athens band to send us home happy. And things don't rock on stagethe way they used to, though the opening trilogy of Monster tunes was as good away as any to get the vibe going. "What's The Frequency, Kenneth," in particular,comes off anthemic in concert. "Welcome to the Occupation" was the first "oldie"of the night (and I would consider any songs prior to Out of Time to be"oldies"); while it was great to hear this Document tune, it doesn't have muchenergy or momentum. In sharp contrast, the five newest songs (so new they haven'tbeen recorded yet; they'll be on the follow-up to Monster) sounded heavy,energetic and fun. Michael Stipe's voice sounded most committed on these newertunes, and Pete Buck's heavily-flanged guitar sound gave the songs a gritty feel,especially on "Wake Up Bomb" and "Departure."

But the Omni audience seemed to respond best to the ballads (or "lighter songs"as I call them, referring to the voluminous number of Bic flames held aloft);string-pulling tunes like "Strange Currencies" (inexplicably accompanied by videofootage of animal x-rays), "Nightswimming," and of course, the ultra-manipulative"Everybody Hurts" had the crowd swaying and dancing like entranced followers at areligious rally. Stipe, as front man, eats this kind of thing up, pushing hisvocal range over the top, playing to the crowd behind the stage, peeling layersof clothing off his emaciated body, and generally acting the "generationspokesman" he probably views himself as. Strangely, his on-stage skills haveseverely diminished since the Green tour...rather than using the stage as aplatform for his frantic kinetic energy, Stipe stood statue-still during most ofthe numbers; even his trademark layered clothing bit was done in a much morerestrained manner (each time he peeled off a layer, he said to the crowd "you cantake off your clothes anytime you want to"...this line wore thin the second timehe said it). Stipey is also much harder to look at then he used to be; hisonce-curly locks have been shaved clean, and his boyish charm has been replacedwith a severe, gaunt, pretentious look that doesn't bode well for the sincerityof the music.

However, despite reservations about Stipe and his performing style, I found theband in excellent form; Buck's guitar playing is as powerful as ever (though lessresourceful now that he has auxilliary stringmen filling out the sound); therhythm section of bass player Mike Mills and Bill Berry (one of the mostmelodic drummers in rock) is still rock-solid, and Amanda Brown, on violin,added hauntingly beautiful touches to songs like "Everybody Hurts," the achinglylovely "Find the River" and "Nightswimming" which was performed as a trio (Stipeon vocals, Mills on piano, Amanda on violin). Other highlights included a rocking"Begin the Begin"; a high energy set-closing "Star 69"; a hilarious cover of thefirst third of Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"; a creepy version of"Tongue"; and the best song on Out of Time, "Me in Honey." Against all odds (bothmedical and musical!) R.E.M. have managed to transition into a mature (dare I say"middle-aged"?) "alternative" band who manage to straddle the line between thesomber tone of their acoustic pieces and the full-tilt rock of their older songs(and their newest material). While R.E.M. may not have the unpredictability orrawness that made their '80's shows so much fun, they've replaced it with aprofessionalism and diversity that's nearly as satisfying.

SETLIST (9:59-11:11):

I Took Your Name
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
Crush with Eyeliner
Welcome to the Occupation
Wake-Up Bomb
Undertow
Losing My Religion*
Binky the Doormat*
Me in Honey
Strange Currencies*
Revolution
Tongue Man on the Moon Country
Feedback
Find the River*
The One I Love
Orange Crush
Get Up
Star 69

Encores:

Nightswimming*
Let Me In
Everybody Hurts*
Hot Java/Band Intros
Begin the Begin Departure (Don't Fear)
The Reaper
It's the End of the World As We Know It

*w/ Amanda Brown on violin


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