Remember R.E.M.? The Georgia band, the one with the NBA-quality record contract? The one with the sad-tomato front man, mandolin-wielding guitarist, pivotal bass player, and no drummer? Well, the whole crew plus extras appeared at Merriweather Post Pavilion last Friday.

There was a time not that long ago when there was considerable fanfare surrounding an R.E.M. tour. The last time the band hit the road, in the mid-’90s, at the apex of the alt-rock blitz that the group helped ignite, Rolling Stone covered the event as if R.E.M. were the pope. In some ways, it was. Those were the days when listeners lapped up singer Michael Stipe’s elliptical confessionals like so much holy water, even when he drew his lyrics from the tap. R.E.M. seemed mature and modest in relation to the grungers and punks. And compared with the emoting, R.E.M.-coattail-riders in Hootie and Counting Crows, Stipe was Walt Whitman—with the reviews to prove it.

The band’s had a great run. Few, if any, artists in rock have parlayed fabulous critical press into equally fabulous popular success to the degree that R.E.M. has. Yet it’s been only four years since that Monster tour, and R.E.M. has never seemed so irrelevant. The mysteries surrounding the band have all either been solved or run out of steam; the records now come with lyric sheets, and no one cares anymore whether the group will switch labels or break up, or which way Stipe swings. The atmospheric chamber-pop on Up, R.E.M.’s latest, is more out of tune with the mainstream music of today than the atmospheric garage-pop of Murmur was with radio in the early ’80s—but that doesn’t mean it matters as much. Today, R.E.M. is breaking ground only for itself; it doesn’t have an underground to call home. If I had realized that a couple of other acts (Moby, Guided by Voices) were playing in town on the same night as Stipe & Co., I might not have even signed up to review the show.

Before the Monster tour, Stipe justified R.E.M.’s refusal to play oldies by insisting that the band wasn’t a jukebox. Last Friday, R.E.M. was a jukebox; from way back on the lawn, where the distance blurred the elaborate overhang of blinking neon, the stage even looked like the marquee for a ’50s-revival diner. Yet what made the show surprising wasn’t that R.E.M. gave the people what they paid to see (this would include a quick-but-clear view of Stipe’s tits), but that the band members, particularly Stipe, seemed totally all right with it.

R.E.M. wasn’t going to take the focus entirely away from Up, especially not last Friday; it was the second-to-last show of the tour, and, with more new stuff in the works (namely music for the upcoming Andy Kaufman biopic), the band wasn’t about to leave the impression that the new stuff doesn’t matter. But, unlike on its last tour, the band dispersed the current material among nuggets and hits like the seasoned arena band that it is. The night was only a song old before everyone was singing along to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

As much as Stipe has tried to distance himself from the rock star he’s become, there’s no denying the fact that he’s pretty good at the job. The days when he stood stationary behind his hair are ancient history, and he’s got the kind of dance moves that suggest he feels just as sexy as he’s trying to be. A few tunes after “Kenneth?,” the singer had already shed a layer of clothing, and he introduced Reckoning’s “Camera” as “a song we’ve played three times since 1985—including rehearsals.” The band milked the moment even though it had to fake a couple of the chord changes. I’ve seen every R.E.M. tour since “Camera” was released, and I was struck by how much depth Stipe’s voice has gained over the years. My friend called his wife and held the receiver in the air just so she could listen in.

For a pretentious guy, Stipe has always seemed remarkably cognizant of his own limits. Ever since he discovered actual words, he’s been fairly adept at saying what he wants to when he knows what that is; “Everybody Hurts” resonated loudly, both when it came out and last Friday, because its sentiments are so obvious. But in the frequent instances when Stipe can’t write what he wants to convey, he simply paints with gray and lets the band fill in the blanks.

As it is, that band is twice as big on stage as it is on paper; aside from bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck, R.E.M.’s touring lineup also includes drummer Joey Waronker and, switching between guitars and keyboards, onetime Posie Ken Stringfellow, and former Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey. It’s not the most stunning crew in the world: McCaughey could pass as a truck driver, and Mills is still favoring the kind of cowboy get-ups that looked bad on Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman. But together with the hired hands, R.E.M managed to re-create the simpatico playing that has kept its recorded music interesting even as the band seemed to lose some of its fire.

Perhaps conceding that Up is more remarkable for its studio savvy than its actual content, the band reinvented some of the disc’s better cuts for a paying audience. Bounding about as if he had a cig caught in his shoe, Buck turned “Walk Unafraid” from a tear-jerker into a rocker with fistfuls of guitar muscle—it was far from the excuse for a beer break that it could have been. In the encore, Stipe sat alone with an acoustic guitar and leaned into “Hope” perhaps still holding out some, looking all the while as if he’d just learned how to hold a six-string last week. After being rejoined by the rest of the band, Stipe poked fun at his “Iron John, menopausal lyrics.” It was the kind of moment that he only hoped could define him; any rocker who plays to the cheap seats isn’t going to be remembered for his self-awareness. A few songs later, he was dry-humping Buck and singing about the end of the world. CP