R.E.M.'s Rich Pageant

Band mines past glories (But what's with the boos?)

An R.E.M. fan since the very beginning, I have been openly frustrated with the pop group in recent years — let's face it, the new album, Around the Sun, is boring. So with uneasy anticipation, I arrived at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth on Saturday night.

At 9:15 p.m., the houselights dimmed and the stage flickered with a static cacophony of white light patterns. Then, the six members of the current R.E.M. touring lineup opened with a searing version of "Get Up." "Begin the Begin" and "These Days," from 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, arguably the band's best album, followed with a powerful one-two punch.

Frontman Michael Stipe, in dark coat and pants and with a stripe painted across his eyes, hopped up on a monitor and stood in a defiant "take that" stance. "We're R.E.M.," he said, "And we approve of this concert." The joke turned out to be the most universally applauded political message of the evening.

Introducing "Boy in the Well" — the first of seven (Lord, help us) songs from Sun — Stipe said, "We like it and we hope you do, as well." It was politely tolerated, but trusty warhorse "Drive" followed and brought the crowd back to life.

The lovefest was short-lived, however. "The Outsiders" was introduced as being about the group's current "disdain for the direction" of the country. A rude and very surprising wave of boos sounded throughout the crowd. More loud boos came later in the evening when Stipe mentioned the recent anti-Bush Vote for Change Tour. Come on folks, it is not like R.E.M.'s political bent is a shocker.

It was clear that much of the crowd was really there just to hear the band's staple of hits. Thus, classics, like the absolutely transcendental "The One I Love," were welcomed like old friends.

Sometimes, in a clever programming move, the group paired new tunes with evergreen favorites. A winning version of the recent "Final Straw" led into "Losing My Religion," a song that Stipe said "belongs to each and every one of you."

The multi-song encore featured a tender version of "Nightswimming." But unfortunately, many in the boorish audience talked through it (you inconsiderate bastards). The band also offered a raw take on "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", a serviceable rendition of "Leaving New York," and a rollicking reading of the oft-bootlegged pre-Chronic Town "Permanent Vacation." On the latter number, Peter Buck, who was in fine form, played his vintage Country Gentleman guitar, while bassist Mike Mills shook his mop of blond hair with abandon.

As the encore wound down, they played a tantalizing, unreleased rocker, "I'm Gonna DJ," then closed with "Man on the Moon." Unfazed by the earlier boos, Stipe ran around the stage proudly displaying a white Kerry T-shirt.

Overall, the evening was well-executed, totally enjoyable and vastly superior to the shows put on by most of today's established touring acts. But it didn't ignite as explosively as old fans might expect. In previous years, R.E.M. often ended its tours with a local stop, generally around Thanksgiving. It served as a grand finale for the exhausted yet energized band, sailing and wailing on a second wind from an enraptured throng of loving fans. Past shows were full of surprises and memorable performances, and there were no boos or hecklers, either. Saturday's show, on the other hand, was sandwiched in the middle of the tour, making it feel like just another stop on the national trip.

Nevertheless, despite the boos and the lackluster response to new cuts, the show was largely a success. The raucous crowd voiced its exit-poll opinion of the show with an affirmative ovation. After nearly a quarter-century in the industry, the band is an undeniable institution, and hopefully, its best days aren't all in the past.