R.E.M. Erupts Into a Roar On 'Monster' Tour

'I AM smitten," sang the lead singer with the shaven head. "...I'm the real thing... I could be your Frankenstein... yeah, life is strange."

Life is actually pretty good for rock band R.E.M.: 15 years, 11 albums, Grammy and video awards, and gazillions of fans worldwide.

On their first North American tour in six years, the four-man group from Athens, Ga., roared into New England for three sold-out shows at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts.

Much of the fare came from "Monster," the group's latest release. Loud and menacing, it is a departure for the band many people identify with mandolin-graced melodies and jangling guitar.

But R.E.M. - arguably America's hottest rock band - has always prided itself on an attitude of "to thine own self be true." The band is regarded as a patriarch of alternative rock. Since the early '80s, other bands have admired R.E.M., notably Nirvana.

One moving song was "Let Me In," dedicated to the late Kurt Cobain (Nirvana's singer-guitarist). In fact, Mike Mills played Cobain's guitar.

In the last of three shows here, R.E.M. opened with a brooding "I Don't Sleep, I Dream," then launched into the hit "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" followed by the grinding "Crush With Eyeliner." A backdrop-screen flashed intriguing visuals and film footage (contracted from various independent filmmakers) - colorful items from a '60s household; girls twirling Hula Hoops; stingrays swimming. Lights, mirrors, and a disco ball added to the effect.

In classic R.E.M. style, no two shows are alike. While "Monster" material forms the core, on this night the group reached back to 1987's "Document" for songs including "Finest Worksong" and "Welcome to the Occupation." Auxiliary musicians Nathan December and Scott McCaughey also joined in on most tunes.

The group also introduced several new songs, including the brash "Revolution" and "Departure," written in February while the band was in Spain. (R.E.M.'s European tour was interrupted by a band member's illness.)

Always the enigmatic showman, Michael Stipe tore pieces of paper off a music stand after each song, and occasionally addressed the audience. "You know that it's summertime when you get bit by a mosquito," he announced after the song "Try Not to Breathe."

Conscious of the crowd on the faraway lawn, he dedicated the song "Man on the Moon" to those seated "closer to the clouds." It was a euphoric high point, with Stipe dipping into Elvis antics.

While much of the show was locomotive and loud, softer moments came in the form of "Everybody Hurts," "Strange Currencies," and "Near Wild Heaven."

The finale had R.E.M. performing "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" - with the audience visually bombarded by flying question marks from the screen.

* R.E.M. plays Madison Square Garden in New York tonight-Sat. After touring Europe, they will return to the US in the fall.

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