R.E.M. at SXSW: A lapsed fan's notes

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It’s fitting that R.E.M. played South by the Southwest 2008’s first big show, last night at the venerable Stubb’s. After all, the veteran group pretty much invented indie-rock in the early ‘80s, back when it was called “college rock.” Along with Husker Du, the Replacements, the Minutemen, Black Flag, and a handful of other bands, R.E.M. shaped an entire generation through their music. No matter that they haven’t released a decent record in more than a decade -- the band is an indie-rock institution, and the packed house was there to pay tribute to three guys who, more or less, helped define what SXSW is all about. ... Over the years, as we original fans got older, and the band got richer, their albums became bulkier, more erratic, and less fun. These days, R.E.M.’s live shows are as predictable as Bruce Springsteen’s: Fans want to hear the old stuff, but you’re gonna have to sit through some new songs too. The Stubb’s performance was no different. R.E.M. went on after midnight, and played a 90-minute show heavy on songs from the new Accelerate, which comes out next month. Some (“Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” “Supernatural Superserious”) worked; some (“Houston,” “I’m Gonna DJ”) didn’t. The night’s biggest hits, naturally, were the oldies that the group – expanded to a five-piece onstage – sprinkled in. They reached way back for “Second Guessing,” “Auctioneer (Another Engine),” and “Fall on Me,” and not-so-far back for audience faves like “Bad Day,” “Imitation of Life,” and set-closer “Man on the Moon.” There were missed notes, missed cues, and some stumbling throughout. But R.E.M. hasn’t sounded this loose in a dozen years – at least since original drummer Bill Berry retired after 1995’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. That’s probably because this is a one-off gig, not a regular tour stop. Plus, they haven’t played live together in a couple of years. Singer Michael Stipe spent quite a bit of time bitching about President Bush, but generally was in a playful mood. Still, R.E.M. at Stubb’s was pretty much like R.E.M. at almost any other show of the past 10 years: reliable, solid, and – like the original indie-rock fans -- just a little bit nostalgic for the old days. -- Michael Gallucci
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