Mike Mills, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. perform on "Austin City Limits" on Thursday Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
Once upon a time, up-and-coming bands came to SXSW in the hopes of leaving with a record deal. Since the industry as it once was is essentially in its death throes, bands on the rise now come with the hope of building regional success and Internet buzz into broader success by playing for booking agents, managers, the people who place songs in movies and TV shows and of course the dwindling number of professional DJs and critics.
Established bands and superstars come for the same reason they’ve always come: To try to relaunch their careers. And the major act with that goal at SXSW XXII has been R.E.M., which played a highly anticipated showcase at Stubb’s on Wednesday.
Just as the t-shirts here read “Keep Austin Weird,” the New Jersey city where I spent my formative years trumpets “I Remember Hoboken When Hoboken Was Hoboken.” I first saw R.E.M. perform at Hoboken’s venerated rock club Maxwell’s when I snuck in as an underage teen in 1983, not that long after the release of its first EP, “Chronic Town.” So I remember R.E.M. when R.E.M. was R.E.M. And for my money, the band hasn’t been since the mid-’90s.
“Monster” (1994) and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996) had moments, but this was clearly an artistic entity running out of gas. By “Up” (1998) and ever since, it’s essentially been R.E.M. in name only –though every album in the last 14 years has been greeted with claims from diehards boosters that “R.E.M. is back” and “they’ve finally made a rock record again.”
Once again, “Accelerate,” the band’s new album due for release on April 1, is prompting those claims. Because I wanted to wait until I saw the band live in Texas, I haven’t spun the disc yet, so I can’t say if the enthusiasm is warranted. But the hour-long set I witnessed Thursday afternoon as the band taped an appearance to run on “Austin City Limits” in May definitely was better than all of the shows I’ve witnessed since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry.
Now a quintet with founding members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills augmented by second guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin, the group played most of the songs from the new album, with the rollicking openers “Living Well's the Best Revenge” and “Mansized Wreath,” the single “Supernatural Superserious” and “Hollow Man,” the sole new ballad, emerging as the standouts.
At times during the intimate ACL show, it did indeed seem as if R.E.M. might be recovering a measure of former glories. But when the band turned to some classics from its catalog – “So. Central Rain,” “Drive” and especially the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Fall on Me” – you realized that while the new material is better than much of what it’s released of late, it still isn’t as good as the group’s best from 1982 to 1992.
Sure, we can give the band a partial pass for the fact that it’s just warming up, and its Austin shows really were just soundchecks for a major tour expected to come to the United Center in June. Yet for this longtime fan, the sure sign that all is not yet right was how little the core members interacted: Stipe and Buck exchanged a few whispers but barely looked at each other, and neither ever looked at Mills.
Buck used to like to tell the story of how R.E.M. opened for the Police at Shea Stadium in 1983 and were aghast to see Sting and his bandmates all arrive in separate limos; his group would never be like that, Buck promised.
These favorite sons of Athens, GA, may be enjoying playing with each other again. But the jury is still out on whether or not they like each other any more.