Velvet Goldmine,” the bomb of a film that Michael Stipe executive produced more than a year ago, must have taught him a lesson about rock ‘n’ roll: It ain’t all that serious. Eighteen years after REM reintroduced regionalism and abstraction to rock ‘n’ roll and one year after drummer Bill Berry departed what is arguably the finest record-making unit of the last two decades, REM delivered a show with humor and bite.
The questionable facet of Stipe and company has long been its ability to execute in concert what they so expertly put down on tape. As has been true in past tours, it’s not so much the new album that dictates the flavor of the evening but the most recent predecessors, in this case 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” and 1994’s “Monster.” On each of those records, REM made a concerted diversion into grittier material that relied on density of sound rather than the airiness they had seemingly trademarked in the 1980s.
The softer material from “Up,” their first with hired hand Joey Waronker subbing for Berry, meshed well with the more energetic songs; the Brian Wilson-inspired “At My Most Beautiful” is a graceful and melodic step forward from two of their grandest hits, “Man on the Moon” and “Losing My Religion,” all of which were among Monday’s highlights. “Up’s” “Walk Unafraid,” on the other hand, is the most dissonant and churning song REM has ever penned, which worked exquisitely as an adventurous bridge between the more popular “Finest Worksong” and “Man on the Moon,” which was dedicated to Andy Kaufman biopic director Milos Forman.
Show was the band’s first on the U.S. leg after an extensive overseas tour that ended two weeks ago in Slovenia. They began with a ferocious burst of energy, delivering impassioned versions of “Lotus” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” with Stipe careening about the stage as an overenthusiastic mad man. Lights stayed on Stipe throughout the evening — there were moments when the band couldn’t even be seen from midway back in the crowd — and his comfort level onstage alternates with the change of songs.
And he still loves to play the mysterious figure: When he introduced a song as guitarist Peter Buck’s favorite, the crowd was blessed with the gliding “Sweetness Follows”; the song he introduced as his fave had the audience scratching its collective head trying to decipher lyrics of the obscure “E-Bow the Letter” from “New Adventures.”
As Berry’s replacement, Waronker brings considerable punch to the band’s sound that fortunately avoids anything bombastic. Waronker lifted the final third of the droll “Everybody Hurts” and, throughout the evening, supplied a locked-in beat that has eluded REM for years.
As has been their wont, show was 90 minutes long with a half-hour of encores that included Stipe demonstrating his pedestrian acoustic guitar skills on the new “Falls to Climb,” a breakneck version of “End of the World” and Stipe goofing on Elvis with a verse of the King’s “Suspicious Minds.” The band debuted one as-yet unrecorded number, “The Great Beyond,” that would not have been out of place on 1994’s “Monster.”
Presentation was bolstered by an assortment of lighted images hung like theatrical scrims, each row behind the other. All lit, stage resembled a Vegas-strip cavalcade of incongruous images from a smiling dolphin and a monkey to Japanese writing and a plug for the REM HQ Web site. Isolated, the images were comical (the X-Ray specs guy), curious (a cup of coffee, men’s and women’s figures) and the off-the-wall (an open palm and the number “30”). None of them had any clear connection to the music.