Talk About the Passion

Michael Stipe, in his finest worksuit. (By Ricky Carioti)

At the end of R.E.M.'s concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion last night, the three musicians who form the core of the band convened at the center of the stage. Frontman Michael Stipe waved and winked. The stoic guitarist Peter Buck flashed a peace sign. And bassist-harmony vocalist Mike Mills raised a glass of red wine - a perfectly symbolic gesture, given that R.E.M. is aging just fine, thank you very much.

The two-hour performance proved that R.E.M. in 2008 is still quite capable of playing with vigor and vitality. The 27-song set included plenty of vintage material (reaching as far back as 1984, to R.E.M.'s second album), as well as most of the band's bracing new album, "Accelerate."

Andrew Beaujon will have a fully formed review of the concert in tomorrow's Style section (and, of course, on This Very Web Site). For now, here's last night's set list with some of my own thoughts and observations.

Finest Worksong: A heady, 1987-vintage blast of ringing guitar opens the show. Interesting choice, leading off with a song from the band's first (and best) decade. Smart choice, though, as the band goes 1-for-1 from the very first.

Living Well Is The Best Revenge: A visceral kick in which Stipe uses a rapid-fire, nearly-bleating delivery to rail against R.E.M.'s critics - music critics, mainly, who'd decided that the band was out of gas. Ooops. This is a bash-n-burn rocker with flying guitar lines and snarling vocals. Love how drummer Bill Rieflin is pushing the pace. A real statement song and a terrific tone-setter for the night.

Bad Day: Another driving, uptempo rocker filled with aggressive guitar riffs and even more anti-media outrage. The band isn't ready to let anybody catch their breath just yet.

What's The Frequency, Kenneth?: As those crunchy opening riffs ring out, I can't help but think of the show I saw on the "Monster" tour back in California, in 1995. It was Bill Berry's first concert since his brain aneurysm, and the crowd at the Shoreline Amphitheatre was pretty charged up. The set began in total darkness with this very song, and the very first notes from Peter Buck's guitar made the hair on my neck stand up. (This was back when I still had hair.) Yet another bit of media criticism from Stipe. Also a showcase for his hip-hop strutting skills: At one point, he begins to do a robotic dance, popping like Chris Brown. "You said that irony was the shackles of youth," indeed.

Drive: The band finally taps on the brakes, slowing down after a pretty relentless opening sequence. Stipe talks about the heat and jokes about the set before this slow-burning "Automatic for the People" single. Buck's chiming chords on that black-and-white Rickenbacker 360 anchor the song. Stipe is showing off his vocal range, starting at the lower end and sounding something close to sonorous before he takes off on a run, trying to send the song skyward.

Ignoreland: "We're going to do a three-song set now," Stipe says. "Each of thsse songs is specific to Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. I'm not laying blame here..." He has a conspiratorial look on his face. He says he's not going to explain what the songs are about, saying that everybody should decide for themselves. And then he explains what the first song - this song - is about: "The hostage crisis that brought about the Reagan administration." Why sing about that now, 29 years after the fact? Not sure, really. (Yet another Michael Stipe mystery.) Interestingly, the band didn't play this "Automatic for the People" song live for 16 years. It finally made its concert debut on the current tour. There's an angularity to the song that's pretty appealing on stage.

Man-Sized Wreath: "Nature abhors a vacuum/But what's between your ears?" Stipe seethes. Another angry "Accelerate" song, this one about George W. Bush's "empty gestures." There's something about the melody and phrasing that reminds me, fleetingly, of the pre-chorus in Kool and the Gang's "Celebration."

Little America: On which the band pushes the tempo again while Stipe makes a slight alternation to the lyrics ("Washington, I think we're lost"). One of two songs from 1984's "Reckoning," which is as far back as R.E.M. will reach tonight.

Hollow Man: Stipe jokes about getting "the patriotic set out of the way early on." Promises he'll "shut up" for the next six songs - "if you're lucky." He's particularly animated tonight - and in a lighter, brighter mood than I've ever seen in concert, though this isn't exactly a light, bright song, what with its lyrics about complicated messes and such. Like the soft-loud/slow-fast dynamics. Scott McCaughey adds a range of colors on piano and then guitar.

Walk Unafraid: A little bit of guitar squalor from Buck. Nice to hear from him, as he looks pretty disengaged - even if his playing sounds perfectly fine. Lyrics about contradiction and constraints. The only song from 1998's "Up" in the set.

Houston: "This next song is about the Bush administration's pathetic response to Katrina," Stipe says. A beautiful, brittle ballad that's lifted by Mills's rolling organ work.

Electrolite: More Stipe chatter about the heat before performing this song from the band's last great album, 1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." Buck is having guitar problems in the first verse, stripping a usually beautiful song of some of its textures.

(Don't Go Back To) Rockville: The band can't play around here without doing this song, can it? Mills - the most important harmony (and counter-harmony) vocalist in rock - sings lead while wearing a cowboy hat, which is perfect given the song's country arrangement. The delayed chorus sounds great with 14,000 people singing along.

Pop Song 89: "Should we talk about the weather?" Stipe sings in this swirling, old sorta-garage-rocker. "Should we talk about the government?" Hey, he's pretty much been doing that all night, so why stop now?

Horse To Water: Guitar feedback opens this "Accelerate" rave-up. It sounds like punk rock, only with harmony vocals.

The One I Love: Another big arena-rock anthem, with a huge, soaring chorus. There's a piercing blast of feedback as Stipe goes to the corner edge of the stage.

Driver 8: Buck does the one-leg lean that used to be his performing trademark until, well, he stopped doing it so much. The roots-rocker, from 1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction," is built on that chiming Rickenbacker, though it's the melodic bassline from Mills that seems to push it along.

Until The Day Is Done: A quiet, anti-conservative rant with shades of "Swan Swan H." The people sitting in front of me are having a spirited conversation about nothing; one of them is actually on her cellphone. Nice.

Let Me In: The band is in a tight circle around the keyboard, where Buck is now sitting. Mills, McCaughey and even Rieflin are playing acoustic guitars. Stipe is singing about Kurt Cobain with his back to the audience, though his face is being beamed over the video screens in real time. His voice is reaching ever-skyward, a high, plaintive wail. A gorgeous, moving performance and quite possibly the highlight of the show.

These Days: Back to the slashing rockers, with a surging rhythm and a double-guitar attack. The 1986 song ends with a power chord hanging in the air.

Orange Crush: The song, which may or may not be about a kid leaving for the Vietnam War, has been injected with a dance beat that hints at disco. It sounds cooler in concert than it probably does in theory. (New adventures in hi-hat, etc.) Big moments when the amphitheater-filling choruses swoop in. Stipe is singing a little bit through a bullhorn. He's also leading a clap-along. And what's that? Military-style snare fills? This is great.

I'm Gonna DJ: Stipe is almost rapping on this garage-rocker from "Accelerate." The wooh-hooh is a bit much (Blur called; they want their song back), but this ends on a high note, with Stipe emphatically shouting: "YEAH!" And in case you happen to miss it, the word is all over the video screens behind and on either side of the stage.


Supernatural Superserious
: Stipe has an ice bag on his head. (Must be hot up there, performing in a coat and tie.) Buck has a gorgeous 12-string guitar. But it's McCaughey whose riffs are driving this mid-tempo song from "Accelerate."

Losing My Religion: Buck is holding a mandolin now. Gee, what's next? Probably the song with the most famous mandolin riff in popular music. Stipe sings part of the song while sitting on a monitor with his legs crossed.

Mr. Richards: Like I said earlier, Stipe has been in a particularly good mood all night. But that hardly means he can't summon anger and rage. Here, he says: "Over half my life, I have been governed by people I don't respect and who I despise on some level." He dedicates this song to Dick Cheney. Guy in front of me starts to yell and scream and heckle. He's drowned out by the bristling guitar sounds. He probably should have left after "Losing My Religion," because...

Fall On Me: Before performing this 1986 song (about the environment), Stipe makes a big deal about something he's had in his pocket all night. Asks the camera to come in for a close-up. Pulls a button out of his pocket. Pins it to his lapel. It's Barack Obama "the next president of the United States." Guy in front of me is apoplectic. It's sort of amusing, really. Did he think Stipe was going to pull out a Bob Barr button or something? Dude. Anyway, Johnny Marr - ex-Smiths, now playing with opening act Modest Mouse - emerges from the wings holding one of Buck's Rickenbacker 360s. The two of them stand side by side, playing identical guitars. (Double the jangle!) Another highlight, particularly when the harmony vocals kick in.

Man On the Moon: There's another feedback problem here (same spot on the stage), but the song is otherwise a success. It's a triumphant end piece to a very strong set.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  June 12, 2008; 10:59 AM ET Concerts , Set Lists
Previous: Discographically Speaking: R.E.M., Part 2 | Next: Tullycraft's Twee Primer


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I agree with pretty much everything you have to say. Missing out on Murmur and Chronic Town was a bummer, especially after seeing the set from the night before.

It was funny how there were lots of cheers for Obama along with a fair amount of jeers. Do these people know nothing about REM?

Also, Johnny Marr stuck around to play on Man On The Moon as well. He seemed to be watching what Peter was playing pretty closely at the beginning of the song.

Posted by: Glenn | June 12, 2008 11:33 AM

This was the third time I'd seen them and definitely the best. Let Me In was beautiful, and Pop Song 89 had me jumping up and down and screaming (REM weight loss program, indeed) and I thought Finest Worksong really set a great tone for the evening: we're going to play old stuff, and it's going to rock.

Posted by: h3 | June 12, 2008 11:46 AM

Yeah, were you sitting near me, J. Free? The guy next to me got all indignant before Mr. Richard, and actually shouted out "Hey, I like Dick Cheney!" That is honestly the only time I've ever heard that.

Posted by: shf | June 12, 2008 11:48 AM

oh, man. I got to see them on Tuesday night in Raleigh in N.C. It was amazing. I jumped up and down all night long. "Pretty Persuasion" rocked. And it was pretty great to have Mitch Easter and Don Dixon play on "Sitting Still."

I'm still recovering from it all.

Posted by: to the max | June 12, 2008 12:17 PM

14,000 people?? wow!!!! I am happy for R.E.M..

Posted by: Mosco | June 12, 2008 12:47 PM

At least you weren't sitting next to these folks.

Posted by: Hemisphire | June 12, 2008 2:02 PM

Actually, I was sitting next to them. Lucky for me, Beaujon was like a human buffer.

Posted by: J. Freedom | June 12, 2008 2:16 PM

Good call on the Blur similarities. I was thinking the same thing.

Posted by: leafblower | June 12, 2008 2:49 PM

Ignoreland was annoying, and the stretch from Hollow Man to Electrolite was boring.

Otherwise, a great R.E.M. performance. Driver 8 and These Days were the best of many highlights. Good to hear the boys in such fine form.

Posted by: SSMD | June 12, 2008 3:12 PM

Fourth Post Rock post in a row about REM? It's good to know that it's 1995 and the band is all the rage. Maybe 13 years from now there will be some OTHER rock band to discuss, but until that time comes, we're going to learn everything we can about this up-and-coming band.

Posted by: Discman | June 12, 2008 3:30 PM

Good show for the most part. "Until the Day is Done" killed the enthusiasm in my section, though. I've long hated "Ignoreland", too, though I have to admit it did work better live than on the album. Would have loved to hear something from Murmur, but hey. We did get "Driver 8", so I'm not complaining too much.

Re: "Little America" -- the line in the original, "Jefferson, I think we're lost", was partly/mostly a nod to their manager, Jefferson Holt. Holt and the band split in the late 90s, and not on good terms. Ever since then (on the few occasions they've played the song), Stipe hasn't sang the original line, replacing it with "Washington" or nothing. So it wasn't a new thing for tonight.

Posted by: KR | June 12, 2008 4:39 PM

Nice review. I agree that it was a great show--I've seen them the last 4 times they've been in the area, and this was the best (although 2003 at the Patriot Center was quite good, too).

I also liked the National as an opener--I have their last 2 records but I hadn't seen them live before. I know that their show at the 9:30 last year got a lackluster review here--did you think that last night was better? I would go to Richmond to see them next weekend if I wasn't going (elsewhere) out of town.

Posted by: Jared | June 12, 2008 5:51 PM

Good review.

This was the fourth time I've seen REM when they've stopped in the DC area. This was a great show. Possibly out of nostalgia I suppose, it doesn't beat the show they did here in 1995 on the "Monster" tour (@ the Cap Center).

Drunken kids on the lawn definitely detracted for me, but that's not the band's fault - it's mine for not shelling out more for seats in the bowl. Won't make that mistake again.

As animated and downright cheery as Michael Stipe was - certainly the most upbeat I've ever seen him in person, in concert - Peter Buck did appear a bit more disengaged than usual.

For me, the only thing missing was including "It's the end of the world (and I feel fine)" in the encore. But ending with "Man on the Moon" was good enough.

Posted by: Corbett | June 13, 2008 8:55 AM

I had pavilion seats and still had to endure drunken a-holes. They're inescapable.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 14, 2008 9:22 AM

I have been and will forever be a fan of REM. Accelerate proves on this tour that they still got it. They got swagger and know how to use it. Man sized wreath, Living well... Finest worksong. the list of great R.e.m. songs is endless. Run dont walk to the next nearest show. Michael Stipe if you are reading this, dont hesitate to put a song like Sing for the submarine into the show. You guys never cease to amaze me. Thanks for a great Merriweather show!!!!

Posted by: CarlfromVB | June 14, 2008 7:22 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company