In November 1986, when I was 14, I saw R.E.M. at Boston’s Wang Center, a medium-sized theater that seats several thousand people. The show was a study in monochrome: BerryBuckMillsStipe, as the quartet was known in their album credits, performed in front of a movie screen that featured rolling black-and-white landscapes and snapshots of middle America. There were long, sweeping views of cornfields, old cars and country two-lane highways cut through mountains and arid fields. Often, the footlights would shine up on Michael Stipe, amplifying a shadow of his skinny, hunched-over, frenetic self on the screen. Stipe seemed to interact with the landscapes, marching through those cornfields or hunching down the highway.
Saturday night, I saw R.E.M. for the sixth time in 13 years. Along with drummer Bill Berry, who quit two years ago, the vistas and monochromatic staging are long gone. For this tour, the band — joined by a drummer and two instrumentalists — is amplified by a hectic array of cheeky neon: a Warholian banana; a Kilroy-esque face giving the audience the finger; faceless outlines of men and woman who open their trench coats to reveal a penis, a vagina, a pair of breasts. And — lest members of the audience, who shelled out an average of $45 to see the show, forget who they were coming to see — “R.E.M.” was written out three times in lights, not including the “www.remhq.com” sign that ran down the side of the stage and across it from the hot-pink double helix encircling a martini glass.
A lot more than the staging has changed. Whereas Stipe’s political activism once bordered on the self-righteous, he is now in danger of becoming a mockery of himself. In a canned bit where he joked that his political disdain for NAFTA doesn’t stop him from buying shoes made with cut-rate Mexican labor, the band accompanied him with vampy chords and swooning keyboard lines, sounding like the shtick has gotten old even for them. Later on, Stipe made an offhand reference to how much he hates Delta Airlines, an offhand reference that has been repeated at virtually every show this tour. When he said, “I’m so happy to be here at Jones Beach,” I actually worried that I was about to witness a “Hello, Cleveland!” moment.
Musically, R.E.M. seemed to be trying harder than ever to play the part of the Really Big Rock Band. Only three of the night’s 25 songs were off of the hard-driving “Monster” (1994), and yet most of the show featured the crunching, rounded edges of that album’s electric guitars. The band stripped the soft beauty and quiet urgency from the two songs “Suspicion” and “Daysleeper” off the album “Up,” replacing those qualities with skronky guitars and angular rhythms. For most of the time, the band seemed to be on autopilot, throwing off its hits in neatly wrapped, three-minute packages that tossed away whatever mystery and suspense the songs carry on vinyl. And for the first time I’ve ever seen, the band managed to rid “The One I Love” of all its biting irony, turning what had once been the most subversive love song to crack the Top 10 into an arena-rock anthem.
The seven-song encore fared a bit bitter. Stipe started out singing “Hope” — a reworking of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” — with a solo guitar. He was joined by Mike Mills and then by violinist Deni Bonet (who appears on Robyn Hitchcock’s brilliant “Storefront Hitchcock”) for “Why Not Smile” and “Nightswimming,” which offered up the evening’s only chilling moments. And Patti Smith joined the band for “E-Bow the Letter,” which wasn’t a great musical moment but was still fun to see.
I left Jones Beach torn. I still have a massive crush on Michael Stipe — his preening and prancing may be practiced but it remains appealing. But I also felt gypped. R.E.M., even as they cut No. 1 albums, always insisted they stood on the side of art and beauty and truth. And on Saturday, for the first time I had seen, it seemed like the band had crossed over to commerce and commercialism and expediency. It was a shift I wish I hadn’t seen.