Athens' finest out to prove they're still the best

  • 2005-01-06
  • By Julia Balandina
RIGA - Music lovers couldn't wish for a much better New Year present than the upcoming R.E.M. concert on Jan. 25 in Riga. While there were several big-name concerts in the Baltics last year, none compared with the legendary American band in either stature or quality.

R.E.M. was formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1980 by Michael Stipe (vocals), Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar) and Mike Mills (bass). While there were a number of hardcore and punk bands in the U.S.A. during the early 1980s, R.E.M. brought guitar pop back into the underground lexicon. Combining ringing guitar hooks with mumbled, cryptic lyrics the band sounded uniquely traditional and modern at the same time.

Though there were no overt innovations in its music, R.E.M. had an identity and sense of purpose. Throughout the '80s, the group worked relentlessly, releasing records every year and touring constantly. Along the way, it inspired countless bands, from the legions of jangle pop groups in the mid-'80s to scores of alternative pop groups in the '90s, who admired the group's slow climb to stardom.

By the early '90s, R.E.M. was one of the world's most popular, respected and influential bands. R.E.M. marks the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock. When its first single "Radio Free Europe" was released in 1981, it sparked a back-to-the-garage movement.

The group, led by the unmistakable voice of Michael Stipe, will be performing in Riga on Jan. 25 as part of the group's world tour and will be playing songs from its latest album "Around the Sun," which was released in October of last year to fairly lukewarm reviews. However, the album's signature tune, "Leaving New York," is classic R.E.M.

"Around the Sun" is typical of the group's later albums. Stipe remains an astonishing lyricist although he seems almost world-weary here. Some might even say disaffected. R.E.M. seemingly cut the album while on autopilot, yet even one of the plainest songs on "Around the Sun" would be a major musical accomplishment. But for R.E.M. the album is part of a holding pattern. The trio has proved its cleverness time and again, but the three have sacrificed a sense of fun and spontaneity in the process.

It's fair to say that R.E.M. is not everyone's cup of coffee, but if you are among the R.E.M. faithful, then you'll inevitably enjoy the lush guitars, poetic lyrics and remarkable voice of Michael Stipe. The group has survived critical indifference and adoration, plus the loss of a founder member, and continues to make great music some 20 years on.

And as a real bonus the Latvian band BrainStorm will be supporting R.E.M. during its Baltic dates. And who knows, perhaps Michael Stipe will even take a little inspiration from BrainStorm's front man Renars Kauper, whose indefatigable enthusiasm for making and performing music is truly admirable.

R.E.M supported by BrainStorm
Kipsala Hall, Riga
Jan. 25
Tickets 30 lats
Saku Suur Hall, Tallinn
Jan. 26
Tickets 590 kroons (37 euros)