With the last presidential debate of 2004 concluding just moments before the kickoff of R.E.M.'s fall tour for "Around the Sun," its 13th album, the Greek Theater wasn't the place to be for escapism; if you thought it was, you probably haven't been listening closely enough to R.E.M. over the past 20 years.
This review was updated at 10:53 p.m.With the last presidential debate of 2004 concluding just moments before the kickoff of R.E.M.’s fall tour for “Around the Sun,” its 13th album, the Greek Theater wasn’t the place to be for escapism; if you thought it was, you probably haven’t been listening closely enough to R.E.M. over the past 20 years. Admittedly, in its early days it was tough to even decipher what words frontman Michael Stipe was singing, much less what the songs were about. So it’s somewhat surprising that it’s his lyrics that remain relevant and vital today, much more so than the loping keyboard-textured music that dominates the latest effort and the previous two albums, all following the departure of original drummer Bill Berry. Songs such as opener “Begin the Begin” (“Life’s rich demand creates supply in the hand/ Of the powers, the only vote that matters”) from 1986′s “Life’s Rich Pageant”; 1987′s “Welcome to the Occupation”; and “World Leader Pretend” from 1988′s “Green” sound just as pointed and indicting as last year’s “Bad Day” (“We’re dug in the deep, the price is steep/ The auctioneer is such a creep/ The lights went out, the oil ran dry/ We blamed it on the other guy”) and new song “Final Straw.” But unfortunately, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” “Cuyahoga,” “Life and How to Live It” and other engaging, energetic guitar-driven rock numbers from the group’s past — songs that once placed them at the fore of the “alternative” movement — had to share time with their recent endless string of slow- to mid-tempo, minor-key, bittersweet folk-pop ballads, leading to an audience interest-level yo-yo effect of standing and sitting. Or flip-flopping, as it were. That wealth of material, new and old, allowed for the exclusion of one-time staples such as “Everybody Hurts” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but without encroaching on such hits as “Man on the Moon” and “Losing My Religion,” the latter of which was dedicated by Stipe to the memory of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The band, aided by additional synths, voices, guitars and drummer Bill Reiflin, is always competent, with the dexterous Mike Mills singing pleasant harmonies and contrapuntal vocals whether playing bass or piano while guitarist Peter Buck arpeggiates his characteristic Rickenbacker sound. But rarely does spontaneity occur within, as a brief Buck-led jam on the end of “She Just Wants to Be” seemed the most venturesome musical moment of the set. It’s Stipe himself who has morphed as a performer over the years, having evolved from someone nearly oblivious to the audience and who eschewed so-called stadium gestures to now fully embracing the role of posing and preening focal point, done up in raccoon-like face paint on this night. The singer drew the loudest reaction by donning a Kerry T-shirt at encore’s end, but otherwise kept overt stumping to a minimum. So, R.E.M. in 2004 — a vote for change? More of the same? That would depend on what one wants out of concerts these days. Band seeks to win approval at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine on Saturday.
Greek Theater, Los Angeles; 5,800 seats; $75 top
Presented by Nederlander Concerts and Clear Channel Entertainment. Reviewed Oct. 13, 2004.
Band: Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow, Bill Rieflin.