Regrettable reckoning


October 27, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

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 Boston.

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."






"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"
"Final Straw"
"Losing My Religion"
"Walk Unafraid"
"Life and How to Live It"
"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"
"Sitting Still "
"Leaving New York"
"Sweetness Follows"
"Permanent Vacation"
"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 era.)

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 ticket wanted.

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 else.

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.