At the close of the penultimate concert of its first tour in four years--and its first since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry--R.E.M. launched into "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." That sentiment seemed appropriate to the venture as a whole, particularly in regard to some die-hard fans who worried that Berry's departure signaled the end of R.E.M. as they knew it.
Berry's missed in the sense that his replacement, Joey Waronker, must often gamely approximate what his predecessor came to instinctively. But that's true only of R.E.M.'s older material, and last night's Merriweather Post Pavilion concert was weighted heavily with songs from the band's new album, "Up," as well as the unreleased "The Great Beyond." The latter is from the band's score for "Man on the Moon," the upcoming bio-film about troubled comedian Andy Kaufman that was partially inspired by R.E.M.'s charming tribute song, which they also performed last night.
Playing under a stage set consisting of waves of dangling neon images--think Las Vegas imagined by artists instead of hucksters--R.E.M. opened with "Lotus," one of the edgier, more energized songs from "Up," followed by muscular selections from their two previous albums, the dissonant "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and the high-powered pop of "The Wake-Up Bomb." But next was a dragging "Suspicion" and an airy but ragged rarity, "Camera"; dating from 1984, it was the oldest song in the set, and the rust was obvious. Several other times, the band muffled its momentum with odd song choices, as when the restlessly yearning "Daysleeper" was followed by yet another rarity, the all-too-thick "Low Desert."
As might be expected, the crowd exploded into life each time R.E.M. launched into one of its mega-hits, which were spaced judiciously through the two-hour show. The first, and perhaps finest, was "Everybody Hurts," the communal compassion classic that stands alongside "Hey Jude" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Other favorites included the soaring "One I Love," a churning "Finest Worksong" and the fervent "Losing My Religion," for which guitarist Peter Buck segued smoothly to mandolin. And vocalist Michael Stipe seemed at peace with the instant community these songs created. In fact, Stipe seemed as comfortable as he's ever been in the spotlight, offering up several anecdotes and otherwise proving much more engaging than enigmatic.
Among the new songs, standouts included the urgently roiling narrative of "The Apologist," an edgily insistent yet uplifting "Walk Unafraid" and "At My Most Beautiful," the band's gorgeously conceived (and sweetly harmonized) tribute to Brian Wilson, with bassist Mike Mills moving to--and quite moving on--piano. Throughout the concert, guitarist Ken Stringfellow and multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey added deft and subtle coloration.
After several charming solo acoustic offerings from Stipe, R.E.M. closed with a shambolic "Pop Song 89," the eerie piano-driven "Tongue" and the searing environmental caution of "Cuyahoga," before confirming the end of the show with "End of the World." And suddenly, you understood why they felt fine.