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Keeping Their Religion

R.E.M. Plays Old Favorites to a Shivering Crowd at the Tweeter Center

By Peter R. Russo

staff writer

Pete Yorn, R.E.M.

Oct. 5, 7 p.m.

Tweeter Center

W e’re R.E.M., and this is what we do.” Michael Stipe couldn’t have summed it up any better than that. On a chilly October night at the Tweeter Center, R.E.M. did the same thing they’ve done for the past twenty-three years: they jammed to a packed house of adoring fans.

Playing for the first time in Massachusetts since 1999, Stipe and company put together a spectacular 24-piece setlist chronicling the band’s entire history. Few others (if any) can dip into such an extensive catalog of hits. One reason for the variety was no doubt to promote their latest compilation album, entitled In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, which hits stores today.

The current R.E.M. cast consists of Michael Stipe on vocals, Mike Mills on bass, and Peter Buck on guitar, all fellow University of Georgia dropouts and original band members from 1980. Drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997 due in part to health problems, and the remaining three have since used guests on drums, synthesizer, and backup guitar. The three guests at this show were solid, yet they played quite literally in the shadows, and received barely a mention from the three frontmen.

After an opening act by Pete Yorn, which I unfortunately missed because of a wrong turn on the way to Mansfield, the R.E.M. crew took the stage and started with the energetic and appropriately titled “Begin the Begin.” The first major hit of the evening was “Drive,” a surprising omission on the new compilation album. While it was performed too closely to the studio cut than I would have preferred, I was glad it was played at all. Several newer songs followed before “Bad Day,” a current single whose tune is catchy, but an obvious knockoff of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”

After the classic “The One I Love,” came “Daysleeper,” the only major radio hit from 1998 album Up. While the band’s latest albums have received heaps of critical acclaim, they have had only moderate commercial success. After Monster, their 1994 album with hits such as “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” and “Strange Currencies,” came the underachieving New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), Up (1998), and Reveal (2001). “Daysleeper” is the biggest hit from all three of these albums, its sound a throwback to the seminal Automatic For the People album of 1992.

The political “Orange Crush” had Michael Stipe singing half the song through a bullhorn. Very cool. Between the bullhorn and Peter Buck’s guitar melodies, this was one of the highlights of the night. While it has never been a favorite R.E.M. tune of mine, this performance gave it a new life, and inspired me to dig up my old copy of “Green.” Finally, the main performance wrapped up with “Man on the Moon,” the lyrical song about the late comedian Andy Kaufman.

After a quick jaunt offstage, the band returned for the encore. Just in case the previous eighteen songs weren’t quite enough, the six-song encore that followed turned the concert into a true epic. At one point, Michael Stipe made a note of this by saying, “we’re going to play more than we’re supposed to,” much to the freezing audience’s delight. For a while, it seemed that the only things that might put an end to the evening were either a case of mass hypothermia or the town of Mansfield’s 11 p.m. sound ordnance.

Unfortunately, the band never played “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” as I had hoped, and the encore was instead punctuated with “Exhuming McCarthy” and the ancient “Permanent Vacation.” And with the opening drumbeats of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” the end was indeed near. But oh, what a rendition! Lasting for what must have been a full ten minutes, the song went on and on, with Michael Stipe leading the entire crowd in singing “And I feel fine!” The house nearly came down when he briefly donned a Red Sox jersey thrown from the crowd. After he thanked the audience one last time, Stipe declared, “See you all again soon,” and left the stage. After this performance, let’s hope it won’t be another four years before R.E.M. comes back to Boston.