R.E.M.'s Live Adventures in Hi-Fi

R.E.M. kick off their U.S. tour in Los Angeles
Posted Aug 10, 1999 at 12:00am
R.E.M., who once claimed they'd retire in 2000, find themselves at a crossroads as the millennium approaches. When they opened their U.S. tour at Los Angeles' Greek Theater on Monday night, it was clear that they were determined to explore their newer material. What Stipe and Co. confronted, however, was an audience hungering for an evening of hits.

It's not a problem R.E.M. had to face five years ago on the Monster tour. That album's more aggressive sounds jibed perfectly with the mainstream audience's need for rock. But the more experimental, noncommercial textures of Up do not fit that crowd-pleasing model. In the end, R.E.M. ended up striking something of an uneasy truce with the crowd.

Entering to the droning intro of "Airportman," they hit the stage running, launching into "Lotus," easily Up's most rocking song, followed in short order by "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" and "Wake-Up Bomb." Though they could not sustain that energy, the first songs did establish the pattern the band would follow the rest of the night: alternating hits and lesser-known songs.

Although the hits got the crowd's attention, it was obvious which songs the band really wanted to play. While they gave "The One I Love" and "Finest Worksong" rousing readings, "Losing My Religion" and "Crush With Eyeliner" were merely listless. Those songs were all met with rapturous applause, yet the audience sat politely during a yearning "Find the River," a bluesy "Low Desert" (with Peter Buck on slide guitar), the stunning Beach Boy harmonies of "At My Most Beautiful" (which Stipe dedicated to Brian Wilson, who was in attendance), a passionate "Tongue" and "Walk Unafraid," which, given an extra layer of noisy keyboards, came off like an outtake from Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets. Even the evening's lone new song, "Great Beyond" (reportedly written for the soundtrack to Milos Forman's Andy Kaufman biopic, Man in the Moon), which harkened back to the band's classic Byrds-y sound, barely got a rise out of the crowd.

The problem is that the idea that rock means something -- a belief that R.E.M. takes practically as an article of faith -- doesn't really apply anymore. Most of the crowd was not out for transcendence or beauty or to have mysteries revealed. They wanted to be entertained. To the band's credit, they did acknowledge this with their staging, a riotous array of brightly lit signs ranging from logos, labels, the band's new Web site, cartoon faces, Keith Haring-styled figures, and signifiers including the banana from the first Velvet Underground cover and a double helix. But those images also seemed to evince R.E.M.'s ambivalent attitude toward the audience: A crudely drawn face looks out on the crowd, holding a hand to its mouth, either shushing the audience or giving it the finger. A security camera above the stage occasionally scans the crowd and a giant Polaroid flashes now and then, as if while you're watching the band, they're watching you.

Those visual elements were effective about half the time, as was the figure standing at the window during "Daysleeper" and the bombs dropping during "Fall on Me." But they undercut the emotional power of "Everybody Hurts," in which the band stretched out the coda while Stipe repeated "you are not alone" for the evening's most affecting moment.

The only other time R.E.M. came close to matching that power was during the encore, when Stipe strode out with an acoustic guitar to play "Falls to Climb." No one was quite sure how to react. He lightened the mood, explaining that it was the first song he'd written on guitar, and when he'd played it for Billy Corgan, the head Pumpkin had remarked that it sounded suspiciously like a song from Adore. As revenge, Stipe jokingly complained that Corgan was "not only taller than me, but he stole my haircut." Next was "Why Not Smile," followed by the anarchic "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and an impromptu cover of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds." When it was obvious that no one in the band had any idea how to take the song to the chorus, Buck led the band back to "World." Stipe handed the mic into the front row, drummer Joey Warnoker began to dismantle his drumkit and the Posies' Ken Stringfellow started to dance on his keyboards. Finally, with the audience on its feet, it looked as if the band had found a way to satisfy both their desires and the crowd's.

Written by STEVE MIRKIN for RollingStone.com News

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