red lights

R.E.M.'s Show: A Real "Up"

New World Music Theater
Tinley Park
August 20, 1999


Story by Tony Bonyata
Photos by Phil Bonyata

With a dizzying conglomeration of huge hanging neon signs glitzing up the stage, the New World Music Theater in Tinley Park, Illinois looked more like downtown Las Vegas last Friday night then a setting for a rock concert. But that's where the similarities of a schmaltzy Vegas revue ended as R.E.M., the Athens, Georgia-based band who started out in the early eighties as college radio anti-heroes and are now bona-fide superstars, put on a spellbinding show.
R.E.M. On a tour designed to promote their last two albums, New Adventures In Hi-Fi from 1996 and the brilliant 1998 Up which found them exploring many different musical avenues such as Brian Eno inspired ambient musings and seventies Kraftwerk-styled German electro-rock, bandmembers Michael Stipe (vocals), Mike Mills (bass guitar and keys) and Peter Buck (guitars) filled half of the show with these newer and welcome numbers. The other half of the show mined into their back catalog which touched on familiar hits and as well as couple of lesser known numbers from all but two of their albums.
With bald head, blue mascara, zipped up black jacket and a shirt tied around the front of his trousers to resemble a skirt, Stipe flounced out onto the stage as Buck and Mills along with touring drummer Joey Waronker, who is filling in for original drummer Bill Berry who left the band over a year ago, and two additional keyboardists broke into "Lotus", an unlikely but very likable song from Up. Lime green strobes flashed through the sonic reverb of "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" as Stipe danced feverishly across the stage with limbs flailing only to stop occasionally to interject a few proudly, yet deformed John Merrick-like stances.
Although the audience was more responsive to their bigger hits performed that evening such as "The One I Love", "Pop Song 89", "Losing My Religion" and the final encore "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", the strongest moments of the evening, however, were often the more gentle ones from Up. "At My Most Beautiful" featured Stipe's rich vocals over one of their most beautiful melodies which included lush Beatle-esque harmonies (even if Stipe is on record as saying that The Banana Splits have had more influence on him then the Beatles), while "Daysleeper" hearkened back to their earlier days of reckoning. Stipe walked out alone for the first encore with just an acoustic guitar and ran through a touching medley of the numbers "Falls To Climb" and "Hope", the latter which was transformed from seventies German electronica into a folk song for the nineties, before he was joined by Mills on guitar on the number "Why Not Smile".
One of the newer songs of the evening was "The Great Beyond" which is being used for the soundtrack of a new movie about the late comedian Andy Kaufman. Also performed was their own 1992 hit about Kaufman "Man On The Moon" which saw Stipe aping in Elvis judo poses a la Kaufman.
Mike Mills and Peter Buck never stole the show from their frontman, but instead added a textured fullness to the evening - Mills with his haunting vocal harmonies and solid bass and Buck with his unique guitar style which sat somewhere on a fence comfortably between ambient soundscapes you barely recognized and in-your-face guitar excess. Stipe on the other hand was the show-stealer as he charismatically danced with the carefree abandon of a child, jactated, pranced, crooned, shouted and opened up a Pandora's Box of emotions with his vocal phrasings. Relaxed and positive, Stipe, who chatted all night in between songs with the audience, seemed to sum up the mood of the show, as well as the future directive of the band, as he sang out , "I've found a way...a way to make you smile" from "At My Most Beautiful" .

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