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POP MUSIC REVIEW : R.E.M. Renews Its Dedication to Excellence


ANAHEIM — Baseball may have Cal Ripken Jr., but R.E.M. has its own iron man in Peter Buck.

The good-natured guitarist smiled as he acknowledged before Monday's frequently captivating performance with the band at the Pond of Anaheim that he has been getting a good deal of ribbing because he is the only member of the quartet who hasn't had emergency surgery since it began its world tour in January.

Drummer Bill Berry started the parade of hospital visits when he suffered a brain aneurysm in Switzerland that forced the Southern California leg of the tour to be pushed back from May to this week. It was followed by bassist Mike Mills' abdominal surgery in July and singer Michael Stipe's hernia surgery in August.

"I had a hangnail in August, two days after Michael's operation, so I tell everyone that was my tour injury," Buck said backstage after an afternoon sound check.

"I've always been really, really healthy, but so have the other guys. We've probably done more than 1,000 shows, and the only other time I remember canceling was when Michael pulled his back years ago. This year was just fluky."

Kidding aside, Buck admires Ripken's work ethic, which resulted this year in the Baltimore shortstop's breaking Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 consecutive games--a record that had long been considered invincible.

Of Ripken, he said: "I think it's kinda nice and honorable the way he didn't make a big deal of it himself . . . just played with such commitment each day. There's something cool about being dependable."

Dependable is also a word that fits R.E.M., whose consistently liberating and appealing music has made it the most acclaimed American band of the last two decades.

But inspired is an even better way to describe the band's stirring two-hour set Monday, which was marred only by a sometimes cavernous sound.

While R.E.M. delighted the crowd by reaching back for such early hits as "The One I Love" and "so. Central Rain," the emphasis was on new material--half a dozen or so songs from its anxious, hard-rocking 1994 "Monster" album and almost as many new songs in a similarly forceful, high-energy style.

Like the best R.E.M. music of recent years, the themes continue to speak with uncommon grace of life's challenges and struggles. They offer moments of both celebration and departure.

From the gale-force drive of the opening "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"--a defense of today's frequently maligned Generation X--the band made it clear that R.E.M. was not winding down as it nears the end of its lengthy tour.

In fact, the band, which was joined on Monday's bill by New York hip-hop rockers Luscious Jackson, appeared to be still winding up, performing especially the new songs with an intensity that was frequently spellbinding.

The highlight came during the encore when R.E.M. played two very different songs about loss and death--songs that show how the band appeals to both alternative-rock fans and a wider pop audience.

"Let Me In" and "Everybody Hurts" both cleanse and comfort. The first, written after the death of Kurt Cobain, expresses helplessness and confusion in its dark, almost impenetrable textures. The latter song reaches out with open arms.

Rather than let the audience go home on such a melancholy note, R.E.M. returned for a feel-good benediction: its old but still therapeutic "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

If the evening left the audience on an emotional high, it was clear that the band, too, is on a strong creative roll.

Indeed, things have been going so well for R.E.M. on its first U.S. tour in five years that Buck said the group hopes to use live versions of the new songs as the foundation for an album that will be in the stores as early as next summer. The band may even do another short tour then.

Watching R.E.M. on Monday, it was easy to imagine that the musicians were applying themselves with renewed dedication after realizing that the series of illnesses could have meant the end of the band.

Yet creative excellence has been a sign of R.E.M. for 15 years.

"I'm sure each of us thought [after Berry's operation] about what it would be like without the band, but I think one of our strengths over the years has been that we have never taken it for granted," Buck said.

"I think what happens to a lot of bands after they have success is they start thinking they can relax and take it easy for a while because of all their accomplishments. But we've always driven ourselves. Every time we step into the studio or onstage, it's like we have to prove ourselves again."

Hall of Fame-bound Cal Ripken Jr. couldn't have said it better.

* R.E.M. plays with Luscious Jackson tonight at the Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, 8 p.m. $29.50-$40. (310) 419-3100. Also Friday with Luscious Jackson, Gin Blossoms and the Meat Puppets at Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore, 7 p.m. Lawn seating, $28.75. (909) 886-8742.

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