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R.E.M. is on the road again and with a healthy drummer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Here's a brand-new song . . . one we just wrote last Thursday," singer Michael Stipe said Monday during the opening show in R.E.M.'s first U.S. tour in more than five years.

For about 30 seconds, most of the 20,000 fans at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., believed him. It wasn't until you got used to the aggressive new textures and started focusing on the words that you realized R.E.M. was playing its 1991 hit "Losing My Religion."

The moment was typical of the adventurous, good-natured spirit of a band that shows no evidence of resting on its laurels. R.E.M. may be the most acclaimed American rock group of the '80s, but it has reinvented itself for this tour much the way U2 did with its "Zoo TV" shows.

Relying almost entirely on material from its last three albums, the Georgia-based quartet didn't offer a spectacular, multimedia assault like U2's high-tech affair. Video images were shown periodically on backdrops above the band, but the "production" in the show was surprisingly slight. R.E.M.'s ambition and triumph rest in the way it has made its music at once more powerful and personal.

Like all the best rock 'n' roll, R.E.M.'s music has always been so emotionally rich that it can feel right regardless of one's mood: tender enough to provide comfort when you need to know that everybody hurts sometimes, joyous enough to bolster times of celebration.

The emphasis Monday was on celebration.

Not only was this show the start of the tour, but it was also the first time drummer Bill Berry has been on stage since he suffered a brain aneurysm two months ago, an event that left many fans worrying about the future of the group.

"It felt like a bowling ball hit me in the head," Mr. Berry, 36, said after a sound check Monday, recalling his collapse during a performance in Switzerland. "There wasn't any warning. I was just singing the falsetto part on 'Tongue' when it happened."

The subsequent surgery forced the cancellation of numerous European dates and pushed back the start of R.E.M.'s U.S. tour from May 5 in Phoenix to Monday in Mountain View.

Mr. Berry's main anxiety after the operation was whether he would lose any dexterity. "I found myself not wanting to go around the drums because I didn't want to find out there was something wrong," he said. "So I ended up testing my hands by playing some golf, and everything was fine. I'm 100 percent."

The good news caused spirits in the band to rise so high that the four members got together during the time off to write six new songs, which may be added to the show. The performances are being recorded for a possible live album.

When R.E.M. took the stage, Mr. Berry, wearing a black baseball cap, T-shirt and shorts, edged through the shadows to the drum kit. Without a word of greeting, Mr. Stipe sprang into "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" -- a song from the last album whose energetic pulse and anthem-like defense of youthful idealism makes it the perfect transition between the old R.E.M. and the new.

In the '80s, R.E.M.'s music exhibited a poetic grace in reflecting the contradictions and confusions of youth. It was music that spoke with equal eloquence about social values and personal challenges.

More recently, the group's songs have tended to deal with relationships, mostly biting tales of obsession and confrontation. There is also an increasing awareness of mortality, notably the helplessness and loss outlined in "Let Me In," which was written after Kurt Cobain's death.

As Mr. Stipe twisted and turned with the microphone stand during the nearly two-hour set, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills both moved about joyfully, reflecting the energy of the music. A second guitarist and a guitarist-keyboardist have been added to expand the sound.

Integrating songs from the more melancholy and subdued 1991 "Out of Time" and 1992 "Automatic for the People" albums with the fury of last year's "Monster," R.E.M. frequently reworked the earlier songs, giving them the tougher strains of their most recent work.

Mr. Stipe twice turned to Mr. Berry to ask if he was OK, but there was no need. The drummer was delighted, an occasional smile crossing his normally deadpan face.

Closing the evening with the band's old "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," Mr. Stipe stepped onto one of the speakers and emphasized the song's key phrase with a spoken declaration: "I feel fine."

It was, in the context of the evening, a toast to both the band's reinvention and Mr. Berry's recovery. Unlike the introduction to "Losing My Religion," this time he wasn't kidding.

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