"We're a really good live band," R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe said backstage at the Hollywood Bowl yesterday. Not bragging, just laying out the facts. "So even on a bad night, it's going to be entertaining. And some nights, it's magical."
Down the hall, five hours before showtime, guitarist Peter Buck was busy pulling together the band's set list (one of his longtime jobs in the group). "My job is to mix the new and the old," Buck said. "All of the new songs are shorter, so we play more songs. It's like the Ramones."
Last night, R.E.M. ended up cramming twenty-six songs into a blitzkrieg-bop show running a bit under two hours. On the third date of their summer tour, they made their 2008 agenda clear: rock, rock, and in addition, a bit more rock. The set was powered by eight of the eleven tracks on their new fast-and-loud album Accelerate, but it kicked off with 1984's "Pretty Persuasion" and included some surprises, such as the acidic political rant "Ignoreland" (from Automatic for the People, but never played live before this tour).
Stripped down to a five-man touring band (Stipe, Buck, and Mike Mills, plus multi-instrumentalist Scott McCoughey and drummer Bill Rieflin), R.E.M. played like hungry men. Concert staples like "Walk Unafraid" and "Fall on Me" were revved up, while "Circus Envy" (from Monster) got a heavy-metal makeover. Even an impromptu encore of "Happy Birthday" (dedicated to Stipe's 40-year-old "computer guy") was surprisingly rocking. "We're available for parties," joked Mike Mills at its conclusion.
As Stipe promised, it was all hugely entertaining — and some songs, like the set-closing "I'm Gonna DJ" and an acoustic version of "Let Me In," were indeed magical. Stipe's final review, delivered onstage: "Not bad for the third show on the tour, I guess."