R.E.M.'s Brave New World

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At Rehearse Too Much, a stage is set up at the far end of a bleak, unadorned warehouse-style space with cinder-block walls. "About twenty-eight bands rehearse here, most of them thrash and metal," Stipe explains as he smokes one of his hand-rolled cigarettes and strolls through the corridors of the complex. That may account for the question one musician, whose band was rehearsing down the hall, asked R.E.M.'s crew while listening to the group run through its set one night. "Who is this fucking R.E.M. cover band?" he asked, his voice dripping contempt. "They play one R.E.M. song after another!"

"What! Who said that?" Stipe asks in mock horror when told of the comment. The singer was sufficiently concerned about rigidities in R.E.M.'s sound that, according to Mills, he told the other members of the band "not to write anymore R.E.M.-type songs when the began working on Green, the now-platinum album they released in early November. Consequently the remark has just enough of a point to sting Stipe a tad. He shakes his head as he walks away and says, "It's a perfect circle."

On the cramped stage, equipment is being readied for R.E.M.'s last rehearsal before the tour. Buck is huddling with Peter Holsapple, the former main man of the now-defunct dB's, who has been drafted to play guitar and keyboards for R.E.M. on this tour. They are sorting out an arrangement for "Academy Fight Song," a Mission of Burma tune that R.E.M. is covering in its shows. The other band members are cracking open cans of beer and soda and pulling slices from the eight pizzas that were ordered for dinner.

Bertis Downs IV, the band's lawyer and longtime friend, has torn himself away from last-minute tour preparations and driven over from Athens to catch the final rehearsal. R.E.M.'s set includes a healthy dose of songs from Green, and Downs, whose fresh-faced enthusiasm belies his profession, says, "I just had to come by to hear how the new songs sound." "After you hear 'Get Up,'" Holt assures him, "you're going to want us to make a live album."

Indeed, hearing R.E.M.'s power through some twenty-five songs in a space smaller than most clubs is undeniably, as Travis Peck might put it, awesome. Undistracted by an audience, gripped by the challenge of the impending tour, the band is totally concentrated in its musical force.

Dressed simply in black workout pants, a green shirt and a black cloth cap, Stipe stands virtually still, but his voice is strong and resonant. The band crunches the staccato rhythms of "Academy Fight Song" and then leans into muscular versions of "Pop Song 89" and "Stand," from Green. Buck's body rocks in emphatic time with his playing, and Berry and Mills build a solid bottom that gives the songs a tougher sound and a greater propulsion than they have on record.

After "Stand" closes, the band confers onstage, and Holt, ever protective of his charges, says to the four or five people sitting near him, "It must be pretty weird, playing these songs with everyone sitting around talking. We should all stand up and scream after they finish the next one." So when the group ends "Maps and Legends," an enrie tune from Fables of the Reconstruction that is much enriched by Holsapple's keyboards, it is greeted by a burst of shouts and raucous clapping from the dozen or so people hanging around the room.

The band members stare uncomprehendingly and then break into smiles. Buck waves, and Stipe says, "My first applause of the new year. Thank you!" Then he recalls that this night is the eve of George Bush's inauguration and adds, "My last applause of the Reagan era." Another volley of applause follows. "You've got to fuck with them every now and then," Holt says, satisfied.

The rehearsal resumes as R.E.M. fires up fierce versions of "Finest Worksong" and "These Days." The proceedings come to a brief halt when Buck pops a string during a particularly ferocious rendition of "Turn You Inside-Out"; and then "Sitting Still" and "Driver 8" follow, with Buck and Holsapple ringing out the signature guitar jangle of R.E.M.'s early sound.

The evening ends with "I Remember California," "You Are the Everything," another pass at "Academy Fight Song," the pleasing, untitled song that closes Green and "Time After Time," the evocative ballad from Reckoning. As the equipment is being loaded, Mills elects to stay in Atlanta, where his mother is about to undergo surgery. Stipe, Buck and Berry climb into the van for the late-night drive back to Athens.

After they arrive, Buck drops in at the 40 Watt Club, which he describes as "purposely kind of a rock & roll dump," to catch the end of a set by an Athens band he produced called the Primates. "Their favorite bands are George Thorogood, Hank Williams and the Minutemen," he says, "and they kind of sound like a combination of all three." Buck's wife, Barrie, a tall, dark-haired beauty who coowns the 40 Watt, is behind the bar, and the guitarist orders a beer.

After the nightcap, Buck's mind drifts back to the rehearsal. "That's the way to see a band," he tells a visitor, "the way you saw us tonight."

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