- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

When Michael Stipe sends this one out to “The One I Love,” there’s little doubt he means it.

Trouble is, he loves an awful lot of people.

The R.E.M. singer, fronting the pioneering college-rock band turned mainstream superstars at the George Mason University Patriot Center on Wednesday night, was a constantly moving engine room of chatter, bonhomie and shouts-out.

The late Johnny and June Carter Cash got a song dedication, as did Mr. Stipe’s deceased pal Kurt Cobain. Opening act Pete Yorn got one, too.

For R.E.M. — which in its early-‘90s commercial heyday played large arenas — performing at the Patriot Center again was indeed a modest return to its roots. The band last played there in 1987, Mr. Stipe reminded the audience, with the now-defunct 10,000 Maniacs as openers.

The guy felt so at home Wednesday that when an in-ear monitor bugged him to no end, he up and stripped off everything above his waist, revealing a concave upper-body that resembled that of a flayed cadaver.

Only the most intimate of friends should be exposed to that kind of thing, so maybe we should feel flattered. Mr. Stipe and company further broadcast their kinship with a prop of neon-red lights strung across the stage that read “L-U-V.”

That special valentine feeling was lost, however, when Mr. Stipe, introducing “Bad Day,” a so-so new rocker from R.E.M.’s upcoming compilation album, said he hated the Bush administration. Only he didn’t say it that nicely.

Mr. Stipe had vitriol to spare. Another new song, the folksy “Final Straw,” was written, he said, “in New York after the last presidential election and before the blackout.” It wasn’t clear exactly what he meant by that, but he most certainly was not spreading the L-U-V for the P-R-E-Z.

There were several moments Wednesday when it could’ve been Patriot Center 1987 all over again. Back then, R.E.M. was touring behind the album “Document” and had released the tremendous “Lifes Rich Pageant” the year before.

The band opened with “Document’s” “Finest Worksong” and closed with a rousing “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” from the same album.

Those were probably R.E.M’.s meatiest years. Its more familiar ‘90s output — “Losing My Religion,” “Man On The Moon” and “Drive” — sounded oddly dated, even though they’re not particularly old.

R.E.M.’s reflective piano ballads, such as the beautiful “Nightswimming,” with bassist Mike Mills on the keys, gave Mr. Stipe a chance to stretch out vocally. But the band was at its heartfelt best with forgotten early gems such as “Life and How to Live It” and the recently unearthed “Permanent Vacation,” which Mr. Stipe said the band played all the way back in 1982 at the first 9:30 Club.

It isn’t quite fair to say R.E.M. is an ‘80s band, but it hasn’t fared as well creatively as its contemporaries in U2. It’s probably fitting, then, that the band has returned to the college campuses it scorched in that now-distant decade.

That’s where R.E.M. will continue to find L-U-V.

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