R.E.M. walked on stage Wednesday at the Forum to clamorous applause, but also amid major questions.
You couldn’t tell from the cheers of the near-capacity crowd that there was any problem surrounding the Georgia-based rock quartet, but the group has been under attack by some longtime fans for allegedly turning its back on the principles that made it the most acclaimed college/alternative band of the ‘80s.
The supposed sins: The band jumped last year from I.R.S. Records, an independent label that has championed underground acts, to big-time Warner Bros. Records. And the band is now headlining basketball arenas rather than more intimate halls.
As evidence of the disenchantment, observers point to the limp No. 35 finish for its first Warner Bros. release, “Green,” in this year’s Village Voice poll of U.S. pop critics--a poll where its five previous albums made the Top 10.
No doubt aware of the controversy, R.E.M. employed some good-natured visuals at the start of Wednesday’s concert to show that its heart is still in the right place by mocking many of the cliches of patronizing arena-rock bands.
While singer Michael Stipe stood back near the drum kit on the darkened stage, words flashed on a movie screen above him:
WELCOME (your city here).
Then, in rapid succession:
IT’S GREAT TO BE BACK IN (your city here).
ARE YOU READY (crowd noise here).
I SAID, “ARE YOU READY?”
The band also used its theatrical instincts as it tackled the issue of its integrity and credibility by opening the concert with “Pop Song ’89,” a cut from the “Green” album that, among other things, serves as a mini-debate about the role of pop music.
As the words weather and government flashed on the screen, Stipe raised the old question about whether pop should just entertain (the goal of arena acts) or demonstrate a social or artful point of view (a trademark of much alternative music). Asked Stipe in the song: “Should we talk about the weather . . . / Should we talk about the government?”
R.E.M. gave its own answer with a series of blistering songs that attack conformity and misplaced values, including “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Welcome to the Occupation.” To drive home his anger at the complacency of America’s citizenry, Stipe acted out the songs with a series of movements--marching steps, raised-arm salutes--associated with a dictator.
As the band (augmented on this tour by keyboardist-guitarist Peter Holsapple) played with enough fury to touch those even in the farthest rows of the 18,000-seat arena, Stipe continued to perform with the arty mannerisms of a manic David Byrne.
In these moments, R.E.M.'s energy and imagination made the objections to the move to arenas seem little more than petty cult elitism.
Still the concert didn’t resolve a more troubling and legitimate problem facing the group at this point in its career: The reason “Green” finished far down in the Voice poll is that the album’s songs are so marginal.
The magic of R.E.M.'s early albums was the way Stipe’s slurred, off-center vocal style and the music’s dreamy textures alluded to emotions rather than spelled them out. The songs, built around themes of youthful wonder and the search for values, invited you to fill in the blanks with your own experience.
By 1987, R.E.M. was in a place of leadership in American rock and it quite rightly felt it was time to move out of the shadows and more clearly articulate its positions. The group made the move on the “Document” album with such energy and craft that songs from the LP--including “Finest Worksong” and “It’s the End of the World . . .” --represented the artistic heart of Wednesday’s concert.
In the “Green” album, R.E.M. articulated its themes with even more clarity than on “Document,” but the group had little to say. There is a positive and encouraging tone to “Get Up” and “Stand,” but other bands--Hothouse Flowers and the Waterboys, among others--offer the same thoughts these days far more gracefully and movingly.
Those songs and the fizzy “Orange Crush” also seemed soulless on stage--leaving R.E.M. strangely impotent. The exception from the new album was “You Are the Everything,” as tender and affecting a love song as Stipe has written.
“I’m very scared for this world / I’m very scared for me,” he sang with a tenderness that recalled the warmth and personal vision of some of the band’s most endearing early numbers.
In that moment, it was clear that the issue that will determine R.E.M.'s place in rock during the ‘90s won’t revolve around the size of the halls, but whether it is able to bounce back from “Green” and write songs with the heartfelt vision of its best days. It is a formidable challenge.
Second-billed Robyn Hitchcock turned in a short but spirited set highlighted by “Veins of the Queen,” a new tune about trying to understand the human qualities of revered or unapproachable figures.
Another favorite of the alternative / college crowd, Hitchcock is a talented writer whose flavorful melodies could appeal to a wider audience. But his imaginative themes are usually so oblique that it’s hard to picture him tapping into the mainstream. So he’ll probably be spared the debate over whether he should or shouldn’t headline arenas.