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Wide awake at the Bowl

R.E.M. focuses on its work from the '90s in a frequently liberating concert. The band also pays tribute to a few of its fallen heroes.

September 12, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

There is a delicate point in every band's career when it slips into middle age and must decide whether it wants to simply keep hanging on to what has brought it this far or whether it wants to reach for more.

R.E.M., now in its third decade, is far enough along on its career path to make fans wonder how it will answer this crossroads challenge. That means the group's first U.S. tour in four years is especially important.

The thrill of R.E.M.'s frequently liberating concert Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl was that it demonstrated that the band wants to keep reaching.

Because this is a tour designed to promote an upcoming greatest-hits album, R.E.M. played only three new songs during its two-hour set, concentrating instead on its '90s material. But it carefully wove the older songs together in ways that offered a comforting, inspiring context.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
R.E.M. concert -- A review of rock band R.E.M.'s concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Friday's Calendar incorrectly stated that drummer Bill Berry left the band in the 1980s. He left in 1997.

Best of all, the band seemed as confident and commanding as it's been at any point in its career -- maybe more so.

Partially because of singer Michael Stipe's abstract lyrics and his tendency to slur words, R.E.M. for years seemed like a band whose art rested in its slightly out-of-focus approach. It was as if the band was saying, "Life is hard to explain, so music should be elusive too."

But everything took on a new clarity Wednesday as Stipe sang with the precision and authority of a diction teacher, giving the words added urgency and force.

Guitarist Peter Buck, keyboardist-bassist Mike Mills and three support musicians played with immediacy and force, bringing a sense of symphonic unity to the music, which has evolved from the jangly, Byrds-like folk influences of the early days into a fuller, more contemporary sound that acknowledges blues and rock touches.

For the tour, R.E.M. has rehearsed more than 75 songs, allowing the band to tailor tour stops to its mood each night.

On Wednesday, there was a strong undercurrent of survival. That may be in part because the band itself almost broke up in the late '80s, when drummer Bill Berry, wanting a change of lifestyle after suffering a brain aneurysm, quit the group.

But the band also used the Bowl concert to pay tribute to two people who survive only in spirit. A wistful version of the country-flavored "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" (with Mills on lead vocal) was dedicated to June Carter Cash, the country singer who died in May, while the tender "Find a River" saluted singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, who died last weekend.

R.E.M. found a more lively way of honoring another of its fallen heroes, Andy Kaufman. Near the end of the set, Stipe invited Tony Clifton, the late comedian's volatile, lounge-singer alter-ego, on stage to join in "Man on the Moon," R.E.M.'s song about Kaufman.

Things went nicely for a while, as the singers shook their hips and looked skyward when they got to the line, "Hey, Andy are you goofing on Elvis?"

But Clifton then shoved Stipe to the ground, as if to say that he's the one who's Andy's friend and doesn't need to share the stage with anyone else. Clifton later poured a glass of water on Stipe and other band members, getting so out of hand that a security man came on stage to lead him away.

As the guard got into a fierce struggle with Clifton, you couldn't help wonder for a second whether this guy hadn't just wandered onto the stage and Stipe had tried to make the best of it.

That's exactly the thin line between reality and fantasy that Kaufman frequently aimed for, making this a perfect tribute.

It wasn't clear if this Clifton was Bob Zmuda, the Kaufman collaborator who has kept the Clifton character alive, or someone else in Clifton garb -- which again was perfect, because Kaufman loved to keep fans guessing.

R.E.M. did play some hits, including "Everybody Hurts" and "Losing My Religion," but the key moments dealt with the survival theme, including two songs ("Imitation of Life" and "Electrolite") that speak of Hollywood and the seductiveness of fame.

In a stylish opening set, Wilco, another superior American band that explores issues of commitment and emotional balance, found a way to tailor the evening to the locale.

After performing its own songs, Wilco ended with "California Stars," which features lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by the band. The tune brought a campfire warmth to the Bowl that R.E.M. maintained in its set, which ended with the ultimate survival song in these troubled times: "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

To underscore the evening's sense of community, Stipe stepped into the audience and shook hands with fans as he sang. They group will follow this tour with a new studio album and another tour next year.

Whatever questions existed before Wednesday, R.E.M. reaffirmed its position among the great American bands, then and now.

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