POP MUSIC REVIEW
Live: R.E.M. at Hollywood Bowl
R.E.M.'s spirit fills the Bowl, with a little push from the crowd.
Singer Michael Stipe leads veteran alternative rock band R.E.M. through a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
You don't often see a rock band being asked to turn it up, but it was a reasonable demand given the somewhat sedate nature of the show to that point. The music sounded bright and clear enough, but it didn't reach out into the broad amphitheater and embrace the fans in its spell, nor punch them in the gut, the way this band has done for nearly three decades.
That sonic reticence might have served as a handy symbol of R.E.M.'s diminished presence in recent years. It's been an up-and-down decade for the Athens, Ga., band, which almost single-handedly created the template for the indie-rock ideal.
Doubts about the band's very existence followed drummer Bill Berry's 1997 departure, and when singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills did return to action, they made albums that marked R.E.M.'s commercial and critical low points.
At the same time, they showed they could soldier on, and while they might have drifted musically, they never squandered the integrity that made them the shining role model for bands such as Radiohead, which was once their opening act and absorbed much about career conduct from their example. You can bet that this tour's support bands, the National and Modest Mouse, are learning some lessons as well.
That integrity, combined with a vast repertoire of songs both familiar and obscure, means that even a routine R.E.M. concert will have a firm foundation. But this time around the band found a way to make it a cut above the routine.
Their new album, “Accelerate,” has been welcomed as a return to form, with a rawness and immediacy that provide a palpable spark of renewal. And without making a big point of it, the band included nearly all the songs in Thursday's two-hour concert.
They opened the show with one of their older songs, "Pretty Persuasion," and then got right to it with the new "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," a scathing assertion of independence from demagogues, whether religious or political.
Like many of the other "Accelerate" songs, "Revenge" fit snugly in the R.E.M. oeuvre while adding some freshness. The atmospheric "Houston" is a sort of meditation on Glen Campbell's Jimmy Webb-written hit "Galveston," with Mills playing organ, but the emphasis is on energy and release. The set-closing "I'm Gonna DJ" arrives as a worthy replacement for "It's the End of the World as We Know It," their apocalyptic party song, and the encore-opening "Supernatural Superserious" riffed with serious force.
This shot of the new was like a serum in the bloodstream, reinvigorating the panoramic career overview that rounded out the set. As the show proceeded, the sound seemed to improve (at least there were no more complaints from the crowd), and Stipe, a lanky, rubbery-bodied genie in a sharp suit, became an increasingly involving host.
His politicking (for Obama, against Bush) was familiar but concise, and he illuminated some of the songs with introductions tailored to the occasion. Before playing "Electrolite," he dedicated the song to Los Angeles, "the city of dreams," and explained that it came from the time he lived in Santa Monica and would go to Mulholland Drive with his friends to look at the lights.
He later asked if anyone had been here the last time they played the Hollywood Bowl and remembered his taking a header on the second song. "Do you want to see the scar?" he asked, pulling up his pants leg.
Whatever issues R.E.M. might have sustaining its artistry and keeping its direction, the band never just goes through the motions. They were happy to include the very early song "Sitting Still" in response to a request made of Stipe at a book signing, and they played the arty ballad "I've Been High" under the yellow flag of "We're still figuring this one out."
"Not bad for the third night of the tour," Stipe commented near the end. True enough. The band (supplemented by guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin) kept the focus on the voice and melody, driving those qualities with the ringing, rough-hewn, guitar rock that's defined them throughout their career.
They aren't architects of sonic grandeur like U2 or Radiohead, or virtuosic instigators of rock catharsis like Springsteen and the E Street Band. But R.E.M. remains in that rarefied company because of an inner fire that insists on a connection with the listener, a shared sense of wonder and outrage at the world.
It was there Thursday. All it needed was a little more volume.