Concert Reviews

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Hollywood Bowl, Thursday, May 29

Our long national nightmare is over. R.E.M. is rocking again.

The quote from President Ford's inaugural address was an attempt to move the public forward after some dark years, and it seems appropriate to describe the exhilaration of Thursday's show at the Hollywood Bowl -- onstage and in the seats. After a mostly downbeat decade-plus, the band appears re-energized by an uptempo album and renewed attention in the States, and it delivered an exciting, covertly political set that reminded just how affecting and effective an R.E.M. concert can be.

It was the third stop on a summer world tour behind "Accelerate," a tellingly titled backhand slap of an album that rips along at musical speeds the band hadn't ever attempted. While 1994's thickly produced "Monster" was R.E.M.'s long-promised "rock album," this one is pure rock 'n' roll: fast, raw and less than 35 minutes long. Nine of its dozen tracks made the set list, and none slowed the show's momentum.

But this certainly wasn't just about plugging a new record. It's borderline cliche to say a band played a "career-spanning show." Most concerts are. But how else do you label a 25-song, 110-minute set that touched on 12 of R.E.M.'s 14 albums (plus one from its 2003 hits disc)? Only "Fables of the Reconstruction" and "Green" weren't mined, but there were five -- count 'em! -- tracks from the '80s. And the band happily ignored most of the plodding songs from its past two albums.

It's a wide-open election year, and R.E.M. is touring. Prepare for some politicking, right? Well, yes and no. Frontman Michael Stipe was less chatty than usual, and he mostly held his tongue until a late-set endorsement of Barack Obama. But he and the band let the set list do the stumping.

Consider this: the intensely angry "Ignoreland" ("The paper's terrified to report anything that isn't handed on a presidential spoon"), the dreading "Fall on Me" ("Buy the sky and sell the sky and bleed the sky"), the disillusioned "Houston" ("If the storm doesn't kill me, the government will"), the disgusted "Final Straw" ("I raise my head to broadcast my objection") and the wearied "Until the Day Is Done" ("The verdict is dire, the country's in ruins"). And there were others.

Meanwhile, ballads be damned. The beats per minute only waned a few times, including "Let Me In," performed acoustically with the five players huddled in a small circle near the back of the stage. Stipe let loose, his voice sailing and wailing as he lamented Kurt Cobain. And the band's haunting delivery "Drive" proved again that those strings on the recorded version are extraneous.

The only real misstep was the multiple-split video screens -- a big and distracting change from the band's only other Bowl appearance in 2003. They added little, mostly just taking attention away from the action onstage.

The ever-graceful Stipe was in strong voice as he deployed those strange and magnetic stage moves. And bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck -- augmented by longtime band cohort Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin -- answered the challenge to party like it was 1989. Verdict? R.E.M. is back. But let's see what the next album sounds like.

 

Set list: 

Pretty Persuasion
Living Well Is the Best Revenge
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
Sitting Still
Ignoreland
Man-Sized Wreath
Circus Envy
Drive
Accelerate
Hollow Man
Fall on Me
Houston
Electrolite
Final Straw
I've Been High
Let Me In
Losing My Religion
Horse to Water
Bad Day
Walk Unafraid
I'm Gonna DJ

Encore:
Supernatural Superserious
The One I Love
Until the Day Is Done
Man on the Moon

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