To an outsider Saturday night at the Greek Theatre, R.E.M. must have seemed at times like a band that spent its entire 90 minutes on stage going through a single song over and over--trying to get it right.
That's because the Georgia-based group's music relies so much on similar-sounding, guitar-oriented textures, and vocalist Michael Stipe appears to mumble his lyrics so that you often think he's just warming up at the microphone.
Plus: R.E.M.'s dimly lit, anti-performance stance keeps the band from moving dramatically from one song to another in a way that tells the audience, "Here's our next blockbuster."
These traits might not sound like they'd add up to a very stimulating evening, but part of R.E.M.'s refreshing appeal is its refusal to conform to conventional rock expectations. It's not Refusal as in hard-nosed rebellion, but four musicians pursuing a natural and satisfying musical course.
This approach has established R.E.M. as the most rewarding new American rock band of the '80s and Saturday's concert was one of the most enthralling local rock shows in years.
R.E.M. doesn't deal in the type of Big Statements that give Ireland's U2 a Who-like significance, but the band offers the same sense of individuality and commitment that helped give both those groups leadership roles in rock.
In past visits, R.E.M. was an uneven concert attraction. The group's delicate music reflects on desire and disappointment with the intimacy, though not self-absorption of the singer-songwriter movement. On most nights, these elusive textures worked well, casting a dreamlike spell that invited the audience to sift through its own experience to find images and thoughts to match the band's deeply emotional, but undefined musical strains. The group, however, wasn't always able to weave that delicate spell. The revelation Saturday was the group's increased confidence and force.
Stipe was a man possessed much of the time, lunging around the stage as if the microphone stand in his hand was sending electronic shock waves through his body. Meanwhile, Peter Buck's ringing guitar work provided an essential anchor. Buck's a student of rock who has drawn from country, folk and blues and distilled them into a lean, compact approach, backed by a flexible rhythm section (drummer Bill Berry, bassist Mike Mills) that plays with vengeance.
The evening's surprise was a spirited version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" that showed any doubters in the audience that this band is, indeed, an essential link with the best of the American rock tradition. R.E.M., which was joined Saturday by True West, was also scheduled to appear Sunday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.