Michael Stipe, sweat-soaked but dapper in a blue suit and tie, paused during Tuesday night's show in Raleigh to inspect the crowd of more than 10,000: "For how many people is this your first R.E.M. concert?"
Nearly half the people in the pavilion raised their hands.
"How many people were born after 1980?"
About a quarter of the house owned up.
I had not seen R.E.M. in 23 years, since the summer of 1985, when they played a small Ohio college in a hall that resembled a barn filled with folding chairs. That night, Stipe stood nearly motionless, as if wrapped in a cocoon, curls obscuring his eyes. He seemed not to sing, but rather to stuff the words deep into the microphone. Although Reckoning had made the Georgia band semi-famous, R.E.M. was still accessible enough that, after the show, Peter Buck could mingle with the crowd and sign one young woman's long-since-lost paisley shirt. By the Fables of the Reconstruction tour that fall, R.E.M. would pack 5,000-seaters in formal auditoriums with no room to dance.
For now, though, let's skip over the hits, iconic music videos and even the few disappointing releases, to 2008 and Accelerate, R.E.M.'s best in years. Accelerate owes its power to the same core constructs of those early breakthrough albums recorded in North Carolina: Whether frenetic or delicate, its songs are undergirded by melody, embellished with unexpected harmonic turns, and powered by a rhythm section that seems connected to a universal pulse.
Yes, after 26 years, R.E.M. has come full circle, treating the old and new with the same vigor and precision. As the band bounced between eras Tuesday night, it was not as if Accelerate were written 20 years ago, but as if Murmur were penned today. Accelerate's guitar-propelled "Man-Sized Wreath," "Living Well is the Best Revenge," "Supernatural Superserious," "Horse to Water" and "I'm Gonna DJ" blew hair back with raw power, while the harmonies on the poignant "Hollow Man" and "Houston" (about the Bush administration's "disgraceful response to Hurricane Katrina," Stipe told the tepidly political audience) gave me gooseflesh, even in the 90-degree night.
In addition to inevitable mid-period hits "Losing My Religion" and "Man on the Moon," the band unearthed the gems from those tours more than two decades ago: "Harborcoat," "1,000,000," "7 Chinese Bros." (written in North Carolina) and "Pretty Persuasion" (about growing up queer in the South—who knew back in the mumbly days?). On "Sitting Still," the band was joined by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, the producers and musicians responsible for R.E.M.'s signature rustic jangle on early records Chronic Town and Murmur. Johnny Marr, then of The Smiths and now of Modest Mouse, chimed in on Rickenbacker guitar for "Fall on Me," from 1986's Life's Rich Pageant.
That album nudged the band closer to mass appeal, and, in the intervening 22 years, they've, of course, been superstars. R.E.M. is larger, louder and brighter now—the Accelerate tour is an enormous production with jumbo screens projecting grainy, hyperactive instant movies from the stage—and Stipe long ago ditched the shy-guy persona to command the stage in a way that would make mega-preacher Joel Osteen envious. But even a fogey would concede that bigger becomes them, and, last night, they were never consumed by the spectacle.
"Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham—this area was one of the first places to welcome us into the fold from the relative comfort of Athens," Stipe reminded the crowd. "We've never forgotten that, and that's why we're here tonight."
I hadn't forgotten either. All those years lapsed between concerts because I wanted to preserve a time that, in retrospect, is all too fleeting, when the world is novel and everything seems possible. In your 20s, one concert can change your politics, can change your mind, can change your life. In your 40s, one concert may not transform you, but for two hours, R.E.M. renewed a piece of me that had been long tucked away.