R.E.M. gets SXSW up to speed

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AUSTIN -- R.E.M. rocked unafraid Tuesday night as it previewed its next album with an energetic and politically charged South by Southwest concert at Stubb's BBQ.

The, 22-song, 90-plus minute set, webcast live on NPR.org, offered a generous 10-song sampling from the hard-rocking "Accelerate," which R.E.M. will release April 1. It all started with the album's opening couplet -- "Living Well's the Best Revenge" and "Mansized Wreath" -- and scored with other new songs such as "Mr. Richards," "Horse to Water," "Hollow Man" and the title track.

Hits were in short supply -- "Drive," "Fall on Me" and "Man on the Moon" came from that distinct minority -- but R.E.M. did dig into its catalog for rare fare such as "Second Guessing" and "Animal," the latter dedicated to Jim Fouratt, who frontman Michael Stipe said promoted R.E.M.'s first New York City show.

"That's the only gig we ever wanted to play," Stipe said. "If we broke up after that it would be OK." He also noted that "The Great Beyond" was his choice for the evening's set list, even though the band hadn't rehearsed it "in about two years."

Stipe punctuated the rest of the night with sharp political comments appropriate for an election year. He saluted Austin for its support of presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and railed that he's "sick to death of politicians telling me what I should be scared of and what I should fear."

He acknowledged that the "Accelerate" track "Houston" was inspired by former First Lady Barbara Bush's caustic comments about Hurricane Katrina refugees who had moved to Texas, and before "Electrolite," Stipe said that he was "terrified history is gonna look back on this decade and the terrible overreaction of the (presidential) administration to Sept. 11. We have almost two years to make this decade worth something, and I think we have the power to do that."

Stipe also dedicated the new "Until the Day Is Done," part of a trilogy of political songs with "Final Straw" and "Bad Day," to the late actor Heath Ledger, who Stipe said had heard the song and liked it when R.E.M. began working on it. He closed the performance with the salutation, "Goodbye, Heath, we loved you."

R.E.M. was slated to tape an episode of "Austin City Limits" Wednesday before heading over to Europe to promote "Accelerate." including a March 24 concert in London. The group begins a short North American tour on May 23 in Burnaby, B.C., and will spend most of the summer in Europe.
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