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R.E.M. retains its muscial idiosyncrasies despite commercial pressure


Boston Garden, Sunday, April 16.



WITH THE MULTI-PLATINUM success of their latest album Green and a sold-out American tour, the members of R.E.M. are finally the rock megastars that critics have been predicting they would become for the past six years. Their last two albums have gone platinum, their latest hit "Stand" has found its way onto the singles chart, and this tour is selling out in the largest venues in the country short of football stadiums. All this new success has brought them a slew of new fans, many of whom were in the fourth grade when "Radio Free Europe" hit the airwaves. Yet the group has done this without selling out to the commercial pressures of being "popular." Last Sunday's show at the Garden showed that R.E.M. is more than able to handle stardom and keep the musical integrity that has given them their large, loyal following.

R.E.M. has had a lot to prove to a lot of people this time around. First came the new record contract with giant Warner Brothers Records. After the release of Green, the band announced that its American tour would have to wait more than four months as it toured Europe, Japan, and Australia. Many were quick to label the band sellouts and predicted their years of making music for music's sake, not for acceptance, were coming to an end. But as anyone in the Garden that Sunday would tell you, R.E.M. is as great and original a band as they have ever been. They played 26 of their own songs and five great covers of other groups' songs in a 21/2 hour show that was definitely the best Boston has seen in a long time.

The band had specially choreographed visual footage shown on a giant screen which served as the back wall for the stage. Scenes from amusement parks, aquariums, and their extended music video "Left of Reckoning" were among the images shown. In what came across as a spoof of the rapport many rock groups have with their audiences, a series of short phrases which the audience read aloud were flashed onto the large screen. "Hello (your city here)" read the first message -- "It's great to be back in (your city here)" read another. They then set down the ground rules for the show with phrases which included "Do not crowd up and rush the stage, as Peter [the guitarist] does not like this."

However, the messages took a serious tone as the group gave the audience a little political philosophy to think about. " Do not underestimate the power of individual action" was among a series of messages the band used to show its belief that young people must realize the importance of political awareness. Having booths in the lobby from both Greenpeace and The Natural Conservancy was the group's way of awakening Reagan-era teens to the importance of things like the Green political movement. During "Orange Crush," a song about the use of the Agent Orange, Michael Stipe mockingly executed a series of exaggerated salutes towards the audience to show his contempt for US militarism. The group's polemicism seemed especially significant considering the relatively young ages of some in the audience. Yet R.E.M. never lost sight of the fact that this was a rock concert and made sure that its political messages never blurred the music.

The show opened with a great version of "Pop Song '89," the first track on Green and one that is bound to make its way on to any fan's "best-of" list. Stipe wielded a pair of drum sticks with which he beat a pair of bongos during "Welcome to the Occupation," a song off of Document about US intervention in Central America. Six others songs from Document were performed, including "Exhuming McCarthy," "Disturbance at the Heron House," and "Finest Worksong." They projected scenes of the top of what looked like a roller coaster at a carnival for the up-tempo "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)."

Strangely, the band didn't play songs which have become almost synonymous with the term R.E.M.: "Fall On Me," "Driver 8," "Can't Get There From Here," "The One I Love," or "Southern Central Rain." The band did supplement its repertoire with some great cover versions. Television's song "I See Evil" saw resurrection at the show, as did Mission of Burma's "Academy Fight Song."

Stipe encored with an a cappella version of a Hugo Largo ballad sung standing on a chair at the edge of the stage. The other band members joined him for an electrifying rendition of Pylon's "Crazy," an outtake from the Fables of the Reconstruction sessions.

The band performed "Get Up" and "Turn You Inside Out" from Green and used their latest single "Stand" as the opener to their first encore. Former member of the dBs Peter Holsapple played keyboard and guitar during the show, and his tight playing helped the band deliver its sound to such a large crowd. The band played four songs from 1986's Life's Rich Pageant, including "Cuyahoga," a song about the pollution of the Cuyahoga River which fit in well with the political feel of the show. Drummer Bill Berry picked up a bass guitar, bassist Mike Mills played an accordion, and guitarist Peter Buck played an unusual steel guitar for "You Are The Everything," a song which may be their next single and could easily crack the Top 10. Rockers "Begin the Begin" and "Life and How to Live It" were highlights from the first part of the show and showed off the band's ability to fire up an audience. They closed the show with what Michael Stipe told the crowd was their 35th performance of the gentle "Perfect Circle," a track off their debut album Murmur.

Nearing the end of this North American tour, R.E.M. has many reasons to be proud. They have found a large audience without changing their style to become overtly commercial. Michael Stipe has mastered the art of stage presence and the band can now connect live to an audience of any size. Those of us lucky enough to be in the front row felt something truly intense -- an incredible band trying to connect with 16,000 people. R.E.M. didn't have to change anything intrinsic to achieve their success; they just had to start doing everything on a much larger scale.