Finally, after about a decade of somber, shapeless, atmospheric keyboard noodling, R.E.M. has charged up the guitars again. On its new album, Accelerate, the veteran band returns to the high-octane rock and wordy, politically sharp songs that cemented its fame more than 20 years ago.
Playing for a nearly sold-out crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Wednesday night, the famed trio of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills seemed invested and genuinely excited about firing things up again. Like a well-oiled machine, the guys, augmented by two musicians, pumped out the greatest hits and several lacerating new cuts that sit well alongside the classics.
R.E.M. has been playing together for nearly 30 years, so the musicianship is pristine, the guitar blasts crisp. But it was evident throughout the nearly two-hour show that the band has lost none of its verve. There's still much bite beneath the light pop gloss. If anything, the guys sound more cohesive these days.
They kicked off with the ranting, stream-of-consciousness cut "Finest Worksong," a standout from Document, the band's 1987 alt-rock masterstroke. While the other band members, dressed casually in jeans, expertly played their instruments, lead singer Stipe was the animated focal point. Although the slight, bald Georgian looked funereal, buttoned-up in a black suit and tie, he twitched, jumped and hip-wiggled through a succession of propulsive numbers, including "Bad Day" and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?," before addressing the enthusiastic pavilion.
"We're going to play for another hour and 45 minutes," he said in a faux-businesslike manner. "And you're going to face this direction and jump up and down with your legs."
But the band slowed the pace down a bit with the moody "Drive," whose beat slumbered behind choppy, grinding guitars. Afterward, R.E.M. shifted gears to do some covert politicking, which is not at all unusual for the band. The anger seethed in "Ignoreland," which includes such lines as "The paper's terrified to report anything that isn't handed on a presidential spoon." Ouch. To further intensify the venom, Stipes dropped two expletives in the song.
Songs from the new album cut even deeper. "Houston," for instance, is a somber tune that addresses "the Bush administration's pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina," Stipe said. The brief but affecting song ended on a drum roll.
To lighten things a bit, Stipe traded lead-vocal duties with bassist Mills, who twanged it up for the country-imbued "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." The momentum dragged a bit when the guys decided to unplug for a ho-hum acoustic version of "Let Me In." But thankfully, the tender guitar strumming was brief. Stipe was back to jumping and twitching as the band revved up the guitars again, delivering the sound fans had been wanting for years.