NEW YORK For a band who had performed the day before in front of 20,000 people, R.E.M. seemed remarkably comfortable Friday evening as they played their newest songs in a tiny room for only 30 or so awestruck fans.
With a sparse group of radio contest winners and fan club members sitting cross-legged at the band's feet, the show broadcast live by Atlanta radio station 99X (WNNX-FM) from a gallery in midtown Manhattan's Museum of Television & Radio made even the most intimate club performances look like Live Aid.
Due to the requirements of the radio broadcast, Michael Stipe's famous baritone was barely amplified, so what fans in the room heard of his voice more or less came directly from his mouth (radio listeners, of course, heard him loud and clear). Instead of detracting from the experience, the barely audible vocals which inadvertently evoked the deliberately murky mix of 1983's Murmur somehow seemed to add to the performance's intimacy.
Meanwhile, guitarist Peter Buck rippled through sweetly distorted minor-chord arpeggios on "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)" and "She Just Wants to Be," demonstrating that the heart of the band's sound remains unchanged even as the group continues to experiment with keyboards and drum loops.
R.E.M. have made no secret of their unwillingness to tour behind the just-released Reveal (see "No 'Hello, Cleveland!' For R.E.M."), but Buck, Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and their backing musicians seemed nearly gleeful as they tore through rocked-up versions of the single "Imitation of Life" and other new tracks.
"You're standing five feet away from me do I look happy?" a grinning Stipe asked a fan in response to a question about the band's future.
Then again, the frontman unusually natty in a green tie and beige sport jacket would've been hard-pressed not to smile. He was, after all, playing for some of his most passionate fans in a room decorated, for some reason, with artsy portraits of Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and other Muppets.
The brief set, which also included the "Man on the Moon" soundtrack song "The Great Beyond," ended with a spine-tingling "Losing My Religion," which found Stipe abandoning all reserve and heading for full-on, foot-up-on-the-monitor arena-rock mode. Mills thumped through the song's elegiac chord changes as Buck nailed the mandolin part, with Stipe cheering him on.
"I've been shaking all day," said 25-year-old contest winner Heather Barrett, one of a group of fans flown in from Atlanta by 99X. "It was the most amazing thing to be three feet from them. It was so surreal they were right in my face."
R.E.M. played an outdoor show Thursday in Toronto, drawing an estimated crowd of 20,000. They were in New York this week in part to film the video for Reveal's second single, "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)."
(For more on R.E.M., check out the MTV Feature "R.E.M.: Reveal Themselves.".)