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R.E.M. Is Gutsy And Flawless Lead Singer Michael Stipe Brings An Exciting Freshness And Flamboyance To The Sold-Out Show

Joe Ehrbar Correspondent

R.E.M., Sunday, May 21, at The Gorge

OK, let’s just get one thing out of the way.

R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm only a couple of months ago forcing the band to cancel all of its European tour dates and some in this country, was healthy at R.E.M.’s sold-out concert at The Gorge Sunday night.

He played fine, he looked fine, he enjoyed himself and he didn’t collapse. In other words, Berry has recovered.

Now onto the concert.

It’s been nearly six years since R.E.M. played in Washington. The last time was in the fall of 1989, the final leg of R.E.M’s exhausting and extensive “Green” tour.

Some might have been concerned that because of R.E.M.’s lengthy absence from the road, it might have lost the live edge it once had.

On Sunday, this proved not to be the case.

R.E.M. delivered a flawless, gutsy, razor-sharp performance. In fact, the 14-year-old band is rocking immensely harder than it ever has.

The band’s sound has evolved from the jangly, Byrd’s-esque, post-punk pop of the ‘80s to the raucous, driving and full-bodied guitar punch of today.

Armed with three guitarists, which included Peter Buck and temporary member and Young Fresh Fellows (a Seattle band) guitarist Scott McCaughey, R.E.M. exploded into a performance driven by dense, reverberating guitar arrangements.

The songs “I Took Your Name” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, both from the group’s latest gem, “Monster,” immediately consumed and gratified the audience.

With the exception of the song “Tongue,” R.E.M. commanded the audience’s attention through the duration of the show.

Much of this had to do with the wiry, bald singer Michael Stipe who, even though he didn’t say much early on, instantly connected with the audience.

Stipe sang with so much vigor and emotion, he was, indeed, inspired. Thus, he couldn’t help but affect the rest of his band and the audience. During the encore set, Stipe gasped: “My throat hurts … but we’re going to play a couple more anyway.”

Everything R.E.M. performed had a fresh ring to it - even older songs like “Fall on Me,” “Finest Worksong,” “So. Central Rain” and “Pop Song ‘89,” which the band noticeably beefed-up through its guitar assault.

And although R.E.M.’s smash hit “Everybody Hurts” has been exhausted to the point of overkill by just about every type of radio station on earth, the moody song sounded fresh, as if it was one of the first times Stipe and company had played the song. Along with the doleful and disturbing images projected onto the video screens, “Everybody Hurts” left quite an impact.

One of the crowd’s favorites was “Man on the Moon,” a tune from R.E.M.’s last effort “Automatic for the People.” This song raised goose bumps thanks to Stipe’s soothing vocals and the uplifting chorus.

But that joyful moment was quickly snuffed out by the melancholic and weepy “Country Feedback.”

Bassist Mike Mills’ role as a backing vocalist is often overshadowed by Stipe’s flamboyance. But Sunday, some of the band’s most compelling hooks occurred when Mills sang backup and during Mills/ Stipe harmonies (their distinctive voices pair well).

R.E.M. could have included more video in the show; when the films were employed, they were effective and greatly enhanced the band’s stage show.

But minor complaints aside, Sunday’s concert will undoubtedly be relished by those who were there as one of greatest R.E.M. concerts ever.

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