Everybody hurts when R.E.M. plays arenas


September 29, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

"We're R.E.M., and this is what we do," singer Michael Stipe said after two songs at the United Center on Friday night.

Well, not exactly, and not really.

For many longtime fans of the most important American guitar band of the '80s and a third of the '90s, the group that took the stage in support of a forthcoming greatest-hits album wasn't really R.E.M., and it hasn't been since the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry, whose unique rhythms and indelible harmonies are still sorely missed.

Its mass popularity since the Green World Tour and its rivalry with U2 aside, R.E.M. has never been a particularly good arena-rock band. It has always been an art-rock group whose subtle colorings and small gestures are either lost or exaggerated to the point of absurdity in an enormodome -- which is why many fans are so disappointed by the group's broken pledge to conduct a long-promised theater tour.

Perhaps it's unrealistic in the current concert-business climate to ask that the favorite sons of Athens, Ga., grace us with a multiple-night stand at the Chicago or Auditorium Theatre. But its show here would have been vastly superior spread out over two or three nights at the Arie Crown or even the U.I.C. Pavilion -- especially when you consider that a fair number of empty seats remained in the United Center's upper tiers.

Midway through the show, Stipe asked if the sound was acceptable, and the crowd roared in approval. But the acoustics weren't worth $75 a ticket. Engineers designed the United Center (like many sports stadiums) to amplify the cheers of the crowd, the better to generate excitement at a Bulls game. This wreaks havoc with concert sound, especially for a delicate group like R.E.M., which based several songs on piano, melodica or mandolin.

Those instruments -- and, at times, Stipe's velvet baritone -- were lost in the muddy, bass-heavy rumble. And the simple glittery backdrops and illuminated letters spelling out the cutesy slogan "L-U-V" didn't offer a heck of a lot to look at compared to the high-tech video and visual assault of artists such as U2 and Peter Gabriel.

Then there was the problem of the set list (which, to its credit, the band is changing every night, drawing from about 80 songs from throughout its career). I don't envy R.E.M. the task: If it plays nothing but its older hits, it's written off as an oldies act. If it plays only its more recent material (much of which pales in comparison to everything on and before 1992's "Automatic for the People"), it is certain to disappoint the diehards.

Nevertheless, there was much to quibble with in the 23 songs that the group offered over the course of its two-hour performance. Delivered as a request from a fan who's chosen it as her wedding song, "Shaking Through" (from 1983's classic "Murmur") was by far the highlight of the evening, and it made the faithful long for more material from that era.

Other standouts such as "The Finest Worksong," "Begin the Begin," "Man on the Moon" and "Everybody Hurts" put the handful of new songs to shame. "Animal" is a rote rocker -- R.E.M. by numbers -- and "Bad Day" (which is actually an old tune that's been dusted off) is a shameless and inferior carbon copy of the set-closing "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." The group didn't perform its most moving tune in more than a decade, the recent anti-war anthem "The Final Straw."

When he could be heard clearly, Stipe was in good voice, though he always seems to be trying too hard when he cycles through his cliched arena-rock moves: the big hand gestures, the Bono-like freeze-frame poses, and the sudden drops to knees. For all of his talk about getting old (he's 46), guitarist Peter Buck still jumped and jangled with the same energy he had 20 years ago. And bassist Mike Mills remained the musical heart of the band, providing many of the hooks, playing the beautiful piano part on "Nightswimming" and wrapping his gorgeous backing vocals around Stipe's leads.

As for this year's hired hands, former Ministry drummer and ex-Chicagoan Bill Rieflin is a better fit than Joey Waronker, though, again, he's no Berry. But Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 distracted more than they augmented, rushing back and forth across the stage to switch between guitars and keyboards, but always submissive in the mix behind the dominant Buck and Mills.

It may not sound like it from these criticisms, but I remain an R.E.M. fan. As I said above, from 1981 through 1993, there was no better band in America. I do believe that the group can reclaim a measure of those past glories. But it will never be able to do that in the arenas, and it's about time it accepted that reality.