Peering out from behind bug-eyed sunglasses and layers of clothes, Michael Stipe (lead singer of R.E.M.) surveyed the nearly sold-out crowd. “I wore the clothes you wanted. I took your name. If there was some confusion, who’s to blame?” he sang out, Peter Buck’s guitar flaring behind Snipe’s rough, intricate voice. For their first tour in five years, R.E.M. has had more problems than they bargained for (by now, I am sure you have heard of the aneurysm, hernia, etc.). But the night I saw them in my hometown, they were just having fun. Nearly 14 years ago, when the four-guy band from Athens, Georgia (Bill Berry, drums, Peter Buck, guitar, Mike Mills, bass, and Michael Stipe, lead vocals) started out, they never dreamed they would be playing large venues to sold-out crowds. This is the band that started because they thought it would be fun to have a band; everyone else did.
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Now, ten albums and tours later, they have achieved a success they had only heard of.
On September 29, in Buffalo, New York, at “the Aud,” Stipe, Mills, Buck, and Berry were in terrific form, kicking off an energetic, musically phenomenal set with “I Took Your Name” and “Crush With Eyeliner,” two songs off their latest release, “Monster.” The set continued with five new songs, including one, “Wake up Bomb,” performed live at the MTV awards two weeks earlier. Also played were many songs off 1992’s “Automatic For the People” including a funky version of “Drive” and a beautiful version of the popular “Everybody Hurts.” They performed Stipe and Berry’s favorite, “Country Feedback,” sung with Stipe’s back to the audience and Berry on bass.
The real excitement, however, arose from the crowd, when they performed old favorites like “Begin the Begin,” “South Central Rain,” the often-misunderstood “The One I Love” and an incredibly hard-hitting version of “Get Up.” As promised, the band stuck to songs from the new album. The greatest treat came when Stipe launched into the sweet and beautiful chorus of Tori Amos’ “Winter” made more beautiful by Stipe’s sweet vocals. Then they left.
Thankfully, after a little cajoling from the screaming crowd, the boys returned for their encore, which concluded with the tongue-twisting “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine).” It was over as fast as it had begun, leaving the crowed pumped, as the floor ticket holders moved closer to the stage hoping to grab one of Stipe’s infamous lyric sheets to keep for a memory.
As a long-time fan, I have to go with the crowd’s feeling and take a step back from my own gut instincts to give a fair, overall review of the concert. The crowd grooved and swayed to the music, singing along and applauding when Stipe made his witty stage banter. Stage banter, usually a bleak, uninteresting practice, was given life by Stipe’s wacky sense of humor.
Between songs, he repeated his tour catch phrase of “Here’s another song.” Stipe told a childhood story to introduce “Man on the Moon” and touched the crowd’s heart by telling them of a “teenage boy with bad skin, who had no life, so he sat at home and watched TV, but TV sucked.”
The strength of the show did not lie, however, in the much-publicized lead singer, but in the power of the band as one. The strength came from the music. Strength came from a tradition of creating words and music to which several generations could relate. This is the strength that separates the great from the mediocre, the old from the new, and R.E.M. from any other band in the world