Mann Center; Philadelphia, PA

I bought a copy of Green when I was 14 years old. It was the time when most of the country began the inevitable switch from cassette to CD, and I thought junk like “Havin’ a Roni” and “Unskinny Bop” were shining examples of complex songwriting. I took a long trip across the American West that summer, seeing a landscape so different than the subdivisions and wooded patches of my suburban Philadelphia. As I hunched over my Discman, songs like “World Leader Pretend” and “I Remember California” surging through my headphones, I could tell my understanding of good music had begun to change.

Flash forward 17 years, and I am sitting in the second row of the Mann Center in Philadelphia. It is a mild summer night, the temperatures dipping into the ’50s. I am 10 feet from the stage. Today, my musical tastes are a full palette: everything from the Beach Boys to Portishead. The band I give credit to for shepherding my musical predilections in the right direction is about to take the stage.

There has been a lot of talk lately about R.E.M. being “back.” Journalists are always looking for a good story, and with the release of this year’s Accelerate, writers act as if the band has returned from a decade-long hiatus. Granted, the last few albums did not garner the critical kudos of their I.R.S. and early Warner Bros. output, but there were still enough choice tracks on Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun to keep me interested. The band never went away; they did tour and record. The general perception of R.E.M.’s last decade is that they put out crappy albums but still put on crackerjack shows. Critics are right about the last part.

The band burst onto the stage with “These Days,” an old chestnut from Lifes Rich Pagaent. Michael Stipe, dressed in a black-striped suit and tie, looked dapper and lithe, eschewing the blue face paint that he had applied for most of the last tour. Up close, I could see his piercing blue eyes and his dance moves perfectly. Since I catch most of my shows these days in clubs, it was strange to see a performer so famous so close. The same goes for when I stood feet away from Bono. These guys are beyond musicians; they are performers. Each movement is big. Stipe worked the crowd, dancing spasmodically, hunkering down and staring us down, leaping about with a megaphone. It’s hard to look away from him.

For an R.E.M. enthusiast, the setlist was a profusion of songs old and new. Hits like “Turn You Inside-Out” and “Imitation of Life” mixed with fans-only tracks like “Wolves, Lower” and “Life and How to Live It.” Also on display were the high energy tracks from Accelerate, blending well with the fiery older songs like “Ignoreland” and “The One I Love.”

But it wasn’t just Stipe’s show. Peter Buck prowled the stage with his black Rickenbacker, a small fan blowing his hair about as if a personal breeze followed him. Though not as thin as in his youth, Buck still pulled off some pretty impressive leaps and kicks. On bass, Mike Mills has refused to return to his mousy looks of the ’80s. He wore a green suit, bleached locks replacing the bowl cut. Mills is also the band’s secret weapon. His sweet harmonies really flesh out Stipe’s more corrosive vocal stylings. If there is one thing that’s “back” on Accelerate, it’s Mills’ backups in more of a featured role like in the old days.

The music sounded fantastic. When the band played a requested version of “Find the River,” the sonic clarity of Buck’s acoustic guitar and Stipe’s voice sounded sharp and clear. It is obvious these guys are professionals and the amount of precision that goes into making such a big show somewhat intimate is an art they have mastered, and that is what sets R.E.M. apart from some of the other bands of their stature.

There is a point when a group gets so big, they become a caricature. When I saw part of Metallica’s set last week at Bonnaroo, it was almost cartoonish the way these personalities melded on the stage. I honestly felt like I was watching an episode of the The Simpsons. But R.E.M. still appears to be a working band. Sure, they played “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love,” but the set was not engineered for only the casual R.E.M. fan. “Stand” and “Everybody Hurts” did not arrive. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine” seems to have been retired. This is not the Annual Steve Miller Band Farewell Tour.

At one point, Stipe asked the audience members to raise their hands if they’ve never seen R.E.M. before. Most hands around me stayed down. It’s the quality of the show that keeps people coming back for more. It’s that good, and Stipe knows it.

Two special guests joined the band for the encore. Eddie Vedder, looking like a literate truck driver in a cap and glasses, traded verses with Stipe on “Begin the Begin.” Johnny Marr joined Buck -- with a twin version of the black Rickenbacker -- for the divine “Fall On Me” and show closer “Man on the Moon.” During the last song, Stipe and Mills stepped out along a partition that separated the pit from the rest of the audience. As the final notes of the song fled into the night, the three remaining members of R.E.M. hugged with what seemed to be genuine friendship. Stipe promised they would be back soon. I hope so.


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