The criticisms usually follow these basic lines:
R.E.M hasn’t been the same since:
a.) Michael Stipe came out,
b.) drummer Bill Berry retired
c.) the band discovered computers
d.) the band became a stadium-rock outfit.
While these criticisms are not without merit—Up and Reveal are relatively weak efforts in the pantheon of R.E.M. albums—they largely miss the point. Such critiques assume that the band is consciously trying to be relevant in the eyes of music critics. They assume that R.E.M. is making an effort to be a big-selling band.
R.E.M. has never approached their music in that way. The band members have always been about making the music that they believe needs to be made to fit a particular moment. Whether the result is Automatic for the People or Document, the band’s two finest albums, or Up, which is better than most of the critics give it credit for, R.E.M. has always played by its own rules.
A day before the band’s October 30th Atlantic City show the band’s bassist, Mike Mills, told Scott Cronick of the Press of Atlantic City that R.E.M. likes “to make an impact on people. But once you finish an album and turn it loose, all you can do is watch how people react.” He added that “what’s most important for us is what we’re doing right now, not what we did in the past.”
Saturday’s show at the Borgata was an energetic demonstration of Mills’ point, as the band mixed new material with expected classics and a couple of surprises, touching on every album but Murmur and Reckoning.
The key to the show was the new material. Lead singer Stipe, in announcing the mesmerizing “Boy in the Well”, told the crowd that the band planned to play some new material and that it would try to get to some old favorites. The seven new songs—in particular “The Outsiders”, destined to be a new R.E.M. classic—were transformed live. On disc, they have a ruminant quality, a softness born of quiet introspection. Live, their intensity is more obvious. Remorse turns to fury.
Stipe was his usual frenetic self. Resplendent in white suit and blue or black Lone Ranger mask (it was the day before Halloween), he wriggled and danced across the stage, mugging and posing during breaks in the lyrics. He dedicated “Maps and Legends”, from the album Fables of the Reconstruction, to a couple he met in the casino who were celebrating their 10th anniversary, eliciting a whoop from the crowd.
The rest of the band—core members Mills and guitarist Peter Buck were joined by Ken Stringfellow, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin—were tight and poised as they created a expansive aural landscape.
Buck remains one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most underrated guitar geniuses, largely because he eschews the big solo. Instead he uses his instrument to color Stipe’s vocals with guitar lines that ring and twist through each song. The line that opens “Bad Day,” the band’s brilliant rewrite of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” from last year’s In Time greatest hits package, snapped the crowd to attention. On “Final Straw” from the new disc, his aggressive strumming undergrids Stipe’s indictment of the Bush administration. And his mandolin playing on “Losing My Religion” had a snaking subtlety that lent the song an almost Eastern air.
Buck, and band as a whole, had the volume turned way up so that even the softer songs from Up and the new CD, Around the Sun, smacked with sonic crunch. The Borgata’s Event Center, a 2,400-seat theater, complimented the sound with nearly perfect acoustics.
The encores were brilliant. Stipe jumped on stage in a pro-Kerry T-shirt, calling for opening performer Angela McCloskey to join R.E.M. as they sang “Happy Birthday” to Stringfellow, first in English and then in French.
The band then ran through sizzling versions of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Drive”, and a luminescent rendition of the current single, “Leaving New York”.
Stipe, acknowledging that the band had never been to Atlantic City before, announced that R.E.M. would play a few more songs than they’d intended—as if the 23 songs already offered wasn’t enough. Then he told a short story about how in the past his parents visited Atlantic City when his father was stationed in the area, though they couldn’t afford the attractions themselves (this was in the days before the Shore resort town had gambling). They would watch people play miniature golf and then watch them ride the rollercoaster. As his story came to a close the band charged into “I’ve Been High” from Reveal.
The band also unveiled a couple of unreleased tracks (the highlights of a show that was all highlights), before closing with “Man on the Moon”. The two unreleased cuts, a driving, almost rockabilly-style song called “I’m on a Permanent Vacation” that Stipe said was the earliest song they’d written but had never recorded, and a new song, recorded but unreleased called “I’m Gonna D.J.” forced the handful of people still sitting to their feet. By themselves these songs were probably worth the $75 ticket price.
All in all, the show was far from a bad way to spend a Saturday night, offering proof positive that no one should ever assume that R.E.M. has lost its relevancy.