June 14, 2008

Veteran Rockers R.E.M. Mixed Old With New in Lively Set List


MANSFIELD, Mass. -- Bands who haven't been around as long as R.E.M. are getting judged on whether they've "still got" what they had all those years ago, whereas it seems an inept question in R.E.M.'s case -- particularly after they tore through the speedy "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," from this year's Accelerate album, to open their show last night at the Comcast Center.

The work of the Athens, Ga.-based band (with permanent and original members singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills and touring members drummer Bill Rieflin and guitarist Scott McCaughey) has for years been roughly divisible into the delicate, murky R.E.M., typified by the Byrds-influenced jangle and opaquely arty lyrics from their first few albums and continuing with the chamber-pop on albums such as Automatic for the People, and the guitar-heavy R.E.M., starting with 1989's Green and including Accelerate.

In live performance, particularly last night, the material was pretty evenly divided between the two, but even the early songs such as "West of the Fields," (dating back to 1982) and "Maps and Legends" (dating back to "I don't know - 1720? 1640?," Stipe quipped), traded mystery for kick. "Electrolite," from Accelerate, with its pretty piano figures from Mills, in fact sounded more like the classic stuff last night than the classic stuff did.

Stipe's keening voice and Mills's pillowy harmonies are still intact, and old and new worked well together as "Pretty Persuasion,""Cuyahoga" and "Driver 8" stood comfortably alongside new and newish songs such as the joyous single "Supernatural Superserious," the proto garage-psych of "Man-Sized Wreath" and the frenetic, wordy "Bad Day." And the band made space for a quiet interlude, which began with the organ-led ballad "I've Been High" and saw the group gather around a single microphone on acoustic guitars (and Buck on synth) for "Let Me In." Johnny Marr, from Modest Mouse, joined the group for the encores, which included "Fall on Me" and "Pretty Persuasion" and finished off with a celebratory "Man on the Moon."

Throughout, the usually ambivalent Stipe was full of silly and ironic posturing and dancing during the songs, but positively chummy in between, introducing many songs with the stories that inspired them.

The main dynamic of Modest Mouse, who preceded R.E.M., was the interplay between the guitars of frontman Isaac Brock and Marr, one of the guitar heroes of the '80s and '90s, who joined in 2006. Brock is jerky and nervous, as are his singing style and his lyrics; Marr is cool and laconic while still being loud. The duality worked to best effect on the grooving, anthemic "Paper Thin Walls" and the closer "I Came As a Rat," and not as well on less adorned, more self- conscious songs such as "Broke" and "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine."

With his steady stream of lines that were as long as sentences, sometimes paragraphs, and plenty of yelping and growling as in the opener "Satin In a Coffin," the nervous, ambivalent Brock delivery was sometimes precious but never grating, and worked when there was as strong a melody as in the dance thump "Dashboard."

The National opened the show by following a simple format mixing the repetition over simple structures of the Velvet Underground with a moody lyricism reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen (thanks to deep-voiced frontmant Matt Berninger).



R.E.M. at the Comcast Center last night [email protected] / (401) 277-7206

Originally published by RICK MASSIMO, Journal Pop Music Writer.

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