Currently on a greatest-hits tour, R.E.M. has rather incongruously ramped up the energy level and, night after night, delivered impressive renditions of songs such as “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon.” A sense of adventure and refusal to cruise in a comfort zone has long been the hallmark of R.E.M., the most significant American rock band of the last 20 years. But that aspect of the act has translated better on records than onstage. This stoutly performed career overview, in which the band has 75 songs at the ready, provided one magical moment after the next, even if most of the music has lost most of its introspective charm.
Current tour sets up the Oct. 28 release of the Warner Bros. retrospective “In Time: The Best of R.E.M. — 1988-2003.” “Animal,” one of two new songs on the album that was impressively performed Wednesday, unfolds with guitar parts that suggest “Revolver”-era Beatles and then explodes. It’s as potent a rocker as they’ve ever written. And sandwiched between the brooding “Drive” and the lilting “Fall on Me,” R.E.M. offered a 1-2-3 distillation of their vast body of work.
While boldly cranking out their best-known tunes, R.E.M. found room for the touching, the bizarre and the obscure. “Find the River” was dedicated to the late Warren Zevon, who had partnered with Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry in the Hindu Love Gods; Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton joined the band for main set closer “Man on the Moon,” picking fights with Stipe and Buck; and Mills got a chance to sing lead on “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” a treat for anyone who latched on to the band back in their early Athens, Ga., days.
Having seen the band do a similar set this summer in Dublin, it’s clear that Stipe & Co. feed off an audience. In a field, on a chilly July night, R.E.M. played to an audience that wanted to sing along with nearly every song and celebrate the music’s power and its attendant memories. The audience response at the Bowl was far more tempered and restrained, and Stipe seemed to respond by not being quite so chatty. Perhaps it allowed him to focus on delivering the goods with astute professionalism and a commitment to being an aggressive concert force.
R.E.M.’s New York stops will be Oct. 3 and 4 at Liberty Park.