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A requiem for R.E.M.

21

September

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Since this blog began in March 2009, I've probably written more than 100 concert reviews. I've also been to many shows around Tampa Bay that I didn't review, for one reason or another. If I had to guess, I've seen around 200 live performances in my life.

So it's a valid question: What's the single best concert I've ever seen?

I'll tell you. It happened on Aug. 27, 1999, at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh, N.C. The headliner: R.E.M.

I was 19, just entering my sophomore year in college, and had only been to a handful of concerts before that one, all of which probably had a lot to do with why I thought this show was so amazing. But at no point since have I seen a performance like it. Bill Berry had already left the band, but Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills put on as energetic a show as I've ever seen. I still vividly remember the sight of Buck leaping and kicking during myriad riffs and solos.

They were touring behind Up -- not one of my favorite R.E.M. albums, but probably their last good one until this year's Collapse Into Now -- so the setlist was full of excellent tracks from Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi, as well as the yet-to-be-released single The Great Beyond. They even dipped into their back catalog for Camera, from their early album Reckoning, a song they apparently hadn't played live in some 15 years. With each song, I felt more and more possessed by the energy, jumping and dancing around on the lawn like some lunatic Phish fan.

Hearing a fan describe why a particular concert was so awesome is like hearing someone explain why their dream was so weird -- It just was, okay? You had to be there -- so I won't bore you further. (Okay, fine, one more tidbit: The opening act was Wilco.) The point is: Of all the bands in the world that I would consider "one of my favorite bands," none have done a better job of living up to expectations in concert than R.E.M. Radiohead, U2, Pearl Jam, Springsteen -- my R.E.M. experience still tops them all.

Unfortunately, I haven't had an opportunity to see R.E.M. in concert since. The band hasn't toured Florida in a long time, and they haven't played Tampa Bay since 1995, when they combined with Radiohead at the ThunderDome for one of the greatest local concert bills ever.

On Wednesday, R.E.M. broke up. Some fans would argue it's long overdue. The A.V. Club, for example, suggested in 2007 that the band could have avoided its "incredible shrinking legacy" had they called it quits in the late '90s, either after Berry left or on the eve of the new millennium. (The writer of that piece later recanted some of it.)

I, for one, am wildly appreciative that R.E.M. did not break up after Berry retired to his Georgia farm in 1997. Had they done so, I would have missed out on the greatest concert experience of my life. Had today's news arrived with R.E.M. still on my concert bucket list, I don't know if I could have handled it.

In rock 'n' roll, breakups are rarely true breakups, and all four members of R.E.M. say they're on very good terms. There's no doubt they'll perform again, possibly even as a foursome. A performance at Coachella 2016 is all but guaranteed.

Maybe on their inevitable reunion tour, R.E.M. will come to Tampa. If so, I know I'll be first in line.

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In honor of R.E.M. calling it a career, we dug through our archives for reviews of old R.E.M. concerts in Tampa Bay. We found two. The first, written by Logan Neill, appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 10, 1995:

R.E.M. TURNS UP FREQUENCY AT DOME

ST. PETERSBURG - A wigged Michael Stipe greeted the sellout ThunderDome crowd Saturday night of 18,853 with a ploy, no doubt, to keep the fans guessing.

Yet as the band reeled the heavy beat of What's the Frequency, Kenneth? with its crunching guitar work and sparkling vocal, it was clear that after a trying summer of what has been a grueling world tour, R.E.M. is still the great band it always has been.

Stipe, chomping on gum and propping his leg on a stage monitor, leered for a moment at the crowd. As the band drove into the sexual friskiness of Crush With Eyeliner, he paused to lick his fingers and smear his lips, all to the screaming delight of the fans.

"We're the band that's paid to play here, and you're the people here to see us," Stipe told them.

And while most of the time band members Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry seemed to pay little attention to the singer, they keyed often to his emotion in the songs.

Buck's scorching, multidimensional guitar work on Bang And Blame was as hard-nailed as it gets -- and probably the single greatest element in the band's ability to rock as the Rolling Stones, but with more guts.

This band knows what guts are. R.E.M.'s own long, strange trip this year has included hospital stays for every member except guitarist Buck. Whether that has had any effect on the band doesn't seem apparent from the unflagging pace of the show. And while this was pretty much a supporting tour for the last album, Monster, there were frequent forays into the past and the future as well.

Stipe, for all his toying (and talkativeness), made good on his delivery of the band's more plaintive tunes like Man On The Moon and So. Central Rain, carefully summoning the emotional terrain of them.

By contrast, Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts were almost flung out to appease the crowd.

They peeled off the urgent new song Revolution with more enthusiasm, and turned back to the frantic drive of Star 69 as a finisher before coming back with the epic grind of The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

Opening act Radiohead gets credit for being one of the most energetic lead-ins in recent memory.

Relying mainly on sturdy selections from their album, The Bends, the band cooked behind lead vocalist Thom Yorke, whose beer-soaked version of Creep made for memorable moments.

Some photos from the show, taken by Brian Baer:

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And then there's this review of a show at the USF Sun Dome, which appeared on April 29, 1989, and was written by Steve Persall:

R.E.M. HAD THEM DANCING

TAMPA - The Band of the '90s arrived eight months early to the Tampa Bay area on Friday night. R.E.M. erased any misconceptions about its moody, murky image with a fiery two-hour-plus performance that mixed contemplative tunes with mainstream anthems. Led by magnetic frontman Michael Stipe, R.E.M. had most of the sellout audience clinging and singing to each note.

That was no small feat for a band that broke through in the alternative music field. Friday's concertgoers would agree that songs can deal with environmental or military waste and still make people dance.

Stipe's political, pointed commentary and surprisingly animated stage presence paced the evening. His satiric dance steps to the ironic Pop Song '89 and bullhorn antics on Orange Crush didn't soften the impact of those slyly written selections. R.E.M. has learned to entertain, as well as educate, its audience. And the usually reclusive Stipe was most responsible for that, especially on the hit single Stand and an impassioned Inside-Out.

Older selections like It's The End Of The World As We Know It, South Central Rain and Cuyahoga were as well-received. Most eyes were focused on Stipe, but ears couldn't miss the familiar, stinging guitar riffs of Peter Buck or the rhythm laid down by drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills.

From the personal crisis of a World Leader Pretend to the cosmopolitan conflicts of El Salvador (which Stipe declared was "praying for euthanasia"), the problems of the past decade rarely sounded so hip and riveting from an American band.

Drivin' and Cryin' opened the evening with a confusing set for the uninitiated members of the audience. The Atlanta-based band veered through a mix of country and hard rock styles that was politely, if not enthusiastically, welcomed.

The opening power chords of Wild Dog Moon may have given the first impression that Drivin' and Cryin' is just another pop metal band. At times the cogent lyrics of lead singer Kevn Kinney were lost in the loud sound mix and the usual muddled Sun Dome acoustics.

Highlights included a stripped-down introduction to the hillbilly manifesto We The People and the banjo-tinged tune Straight To Hell.

Hasty power chords and corn pone harmonies coexisted in the same song on Honeysuckle Blue.

Still, the biggest round of applause for the opening act came when Kinney it was announced that R.E.M. would be onstage in a few minutes.

It was a clear reminder of what the headliners have already learned; it takes talent and patience to gain acceptance. For R.E.M. and its fans who stumbled upon them years ago, the wait has been worthwhile and the '90s are just around the corner.

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Let's hear it, fellow R.E.M. fans: What are your concert memories of R.E.M. in Tampa Bay? Please commiserate with us in the comments.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 4:41pm]

    

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