Kicking off the U.S. leg of this tour in the Bay Area, R.E.M. has transcended the “alternative” tag and then some in the last five years. The band is no longer considered a fringe act (they sold out three shows at this shed), and their audience reflects this mainstream acceptance: nary a flannel to be found, nor leathers or other demi-mondish garb. This sell-out crowd could have come straight from a 49ers game.
Opening with “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” from the band’s most recent album, “Monster,” R.E.M. mostly stuck to material from that record with a smattering of other songs from their Warner Bros. catalog, and only a pair from the pre-WB signing, “So. Central Rain” and the inevitable closer, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Augmented by two auxiliary players on guitars and keys, R.E.M. also has shed its jangle-rock past in favor of a heavier, denser sound that rocks more and owes a fair amount to both Nirvana and Iggy Pop.
Songs such as “Star 69” and the punky Stooges-like “Revolution”– which has not yet been recorded — indicate a new direction for the band. It is as if they finally discovered the power ofthe electric guitar, albeit without a single flashy solo.
Stipe has developed into a powerful, proud vocalist belting out R.E.M.’s minor-key melodies with real verve and force.
Openers Sonic Youth faced the typical shed problems: A long line in the parking lot kept most of the house ensconced in the mud during their 35-minute set. Still, the upcoming Lollapalooza headliners tore through a brief turn featuring scads of weird things, flat vocal declamations and guitar feedback.