R.E.M. / May 29, 2008 / Los Angeles (Hollywood Bowl)

"Wow." It's a word that pops up a lot in the 2008-era R.E.M. milieu.It's repeated in the lyrics of two new songs from the band's recently released 14 studio album, "Accelerate," a fact that led bassis


It's a word that pops up a lot in the 2008-era R.E.M. milieu.

It's repeated in the lyrics of two new songs from the band's recently released 14th studio album, "Accelerate," a fact that led bassist Mike Mills to even suggest the word as the album's potential title. It's also used prominently in the graphics that project on screens behind the band on their current world tour.

Indeed, the word itself seems to best sum up the current state of the band. In new songs "Supernatural Superserious" and "Man Sized Wreath," Michael Stipe melodically yelps the word out with glammy, Bolan-esque dramatic emphasis, as if to show fans, critics, believers and non-believers alike that he knows as well as anybody that R.E.M. is back and that its moment is now.

It's been a long time coming. The last 10 years have not exactly been rosy for the band, which celebrated its 28th birthday in April. In that period since the departure of founding member Bill Berry in October 1997, the group stopped being R.E.M.-as-we-knew-them, and ceased functioning as it had so well in years past, when it churned out an unprecedented string of commercially and critically successful albums with apparent effortlessness.

With three increasingly disappointing post-Berry albums under their belts (the nadir being 2004's nearly lifeless "Around the Sun"), things got to the point where even R.E.M. knew that something needed to change.

Thankfully for the band and its fans, the problem has been solved. At the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles last night, R.E.M. did what many feared they could never do again -- actually be R.E.M. But from the opening riff of "Pretty Persuasion," it was clear the group has found new comfort in its own skin.

Stipe, Buck and Mills punched through a two-hour set with more energy and enthusiasm than bands half their age. Stipe's vocal intensity was at fever pitch, blending into a thick melodic swirl with Mills' harmonies and bass lines, and Buck's roaring Rickenbacker arpeggios. The effect was nothing short of thrilling. But it's important to remember that, in the live setting especially, these guys have always sounded terrific. So what is the difference this time around?

Much credit goes to the band for sticking with drummer Bill Rieflin, who gives an appropriate Berry-esque thump to material both old and new. With him behind the kit, and longtime sideman Scott McCaughey adding some extra guitar heft, the songs sound full but never overdone, as they have in past tours where racks of keyboards were used to augment the live arrangements.

With this back-to-basics live formula finally tweaked for optimum rocking, the band no longer seems at all apprehensive about embracing the gems from its back catalog. Golden nuggets like "Sitting Still" and deeper album tracks from the
'90s like "Ignoreland" and "Circus Envy" sounded fresh alongside brand new material like "Hollow Man" and "Accelerate." New arrangements of "Final Straw" and "Electrolite" were also noticeably improved from previous tours.

With this confidence in full bloom, R.E.M. is also taking chances again, tackling an acoustic version of "Let Me In" from 1994's "Monster," which featured all five players huddled together around an organ, strumming guitars and harmonizing like they were in an Athens, Ga., living room. Moreover, the group delivered a stunningly sparse version of "I've Been High" from 2001's "Reveal", a much-welcomed change from its syrupy, drum machine-heavy album counterpart.

The organic richness and rhythmic intensity of these live tracks is consistent with how the group sounded in its heyday. For the first time in its post-Berry career, audiences are getting to hear newer material the way it might have sounded if Berry never left.

Most importantly though, the band can once again take pride in simply being itself. They can encore with new material like "Supernatural Superserious" and "Until The Day Is Done" and actually make the performances completely worth the wait, alongside mega hits like "The One I Love" and "Man on the Moon."

It has taken about 10 years, but R.E.M. has successfully reclaimed its brand. Its identity is intact and its work is significant, meaningful and yes, important, once again. This is a "wow" moment, and its one the band can feel good about for all the right reasons.

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