It has been 20 years or so, but the band that helped invent indie rock is still making noise. With the release of a greatest hits package (including two new songs) due later this month, R.E.M. took to the stage October 3 at the Tommy Hilfiger at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York, and put on a memorable and energetic show, even though a brutal cold snap tended to tame the crowd.
I’ve been a fan of the band since Murmur was released, but had managed to catch them live only once before, in 1987 on my 25th birthday. They were a powerful act then, and they remain a tremendous live act to this day. Of course, it’s not the same band. Drummer Bill Berry retired after a 1997 aneurysm while on tour in Europe, which led to the use of a drum machine on the underrated album Up. Prior to his retirement, the band was known as much for its intricate guitar work and southern-based sound as it was for its intelligent lyrics and politics. But the two discs released since Berry’s retirement—Up and Reveal—have been less guitar-focused and more atmospheric.
But on October 3, the band—bolstered by Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey on keyboards and guitars and Bill Rieflin on drums—returned to their guitar-based roots. Songs like “At My Most Beautiful” and “Imitation of Life” were more guitar-driven than their studio counterparts, helping to give the night a sense of musical unity.
Stipe opened by saying, “We’re R.E.M. and this is what we do.” What they did was play intensely, despite the brutal cold and winds that whipped through the stands. Clad in heavy sweatshirts and coats—like the rest of us—the band stomped out to a raucous “Begin the Begin” and revved through a mix of hits and album cuts, including three unreleased songs—two of which, “Animal” and “Bad Day”, will be on their soon-to-be-released disc.
Stipe spent the night bouncing around the stage, while bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck (one of the most underrated lead guitarists in rock and roll) showed off the musical precision that has been the hallmark of the band from its inception. The band changed tempos with ease, moving from the hard-rocking “The Wake Up Bomb” from Hi-Fi to “Drive” from Automatic for the People and back into the psychedelic “Animal” and the lovely “Sitting Still” from Murmur.
At this point, the politics took center stage with a blistering version of “Exhuming McCarthy” from Document. Stipe, joking throughout the night (he had promised not to repeat a previous performance at Jones Beach during which he made the mistake of doing his stand-up comic routine), explained that the band had a link on its website from which fans could request songs to be played at specific shows. He then said the next song was just such a request, from a couple (Cindy and Bob) who were celebrating their wedding anniversary. He thought it strange that someone would want “a song about the fascist takeover of America to be their anniversary song.”
It may have been strange, but totally appropriate given what was to come. The band then kicked into a vicious rendition of ” “Bad Day.” The band then used that energy to run through the rest of the main set: “The One I Love” from Document, “Strange Currencies” from Monster, “Maps And Legends” from Fables of the Reconstruction, a beautiful “Everybody Hurts” with the crowd singing along, “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)” from Reveal, a rousing “Losing My Religion” from Out of Time, “At My Most Beautiful”, “She Just Wants To Be” from Reveal and a powerful “Walk Unafraid” (one of their better songs) from Up, before closing with “Man On The Moon”.
The band ratcheted up the show’s political tone during the encore, when Stipe walked on stage with an acoustic guitar and sang Interpol’s “N.Y.C.”, with its refrain of “New York cares (got to be some more change in my life).” That was followed by “Little America” from Reckoning (requested by guitarist Peter Buck for “Arnold and Rush”), a truly transcendent version of Automatic for the People‘s “Nightswimming”, with Mike Mills soloing on piano, and the anti-war anthem “Final Straw”, which the band released on its website before the war in Iraq and comments “I don’t believe and never did that two wrongs make a right.”
Stipe then introduced “Imitation of Life” as their “first certified number one hit—in Japan” and closed with a crowd-pleasing “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, the crowd once again singing every word—or at least trying to.
The cold was a factor, with the wind whipping in off the bay keeping the crowd from truly letting loose. That said, the band showed no signs of slowing down, which bodes well for their return to the studio. A new album is anticipated for next year and, if we’re lucky, another tour. If the Jones Beach show is any indication, R.E.M. fans should be pleased with the results.