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R.E.M. STAGES A WEIRD AND WONDERFUL SHOW

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Frank Zappa once said something like, "Rock journalists are writers who can't write about musicians who can't play music for readers who can't read."

Well, I'm not that cynical, but I was unconvinced that R.E.M. was "America's best rock 'n' roll band," a title conferred on them by the great-and-powerful Rolling Stone magazine.But after witnessing them in all their gaudy quirkiness during a two-hour, 28-song set at the Salt Palace, I am a believer: R.E.M. is undoubtedly the best homegrown product in many years.

From the opening chords of "Stand," R.E.M. took command of the evening and scarcely faltered throughout a scintillating show that spanned eight years and five albums.

Spurred by the twangy resonance of vocalist Michael Stipe and the distinctive, clanging riffs of guitarist Peter Buck, R.E.M. produces a unique mix of rock, folk and perhaps a splash of (dare we say?) country.

But my conversion didn't result from their music alone. I'd heard most of their albums and found "Lifes Rich Pageant" to be their best, with "Green," their newest album, somewhere in the middle. Overall, I thought their work interesting but hardly inspired.

Live R.E.M., however, is another story.

First of all, the show was masterfully staged and perfectly executed with simple, but effective visuals that enhanced, without overwhelming, the music. The stage was stark, save for the massive screen behind the stage that periodically came alive with scenes of urban blight, rolling hills and schools of fish, all filmed in rich, grainy grays and browns.

There is also a certain quintessential R.E.M. quirkiness, which is most evident in their lyrics, but also manifests itself in onstage weirdness. In a bizarre sendup of insincere performers who gush about how wonderful it is to be in (say) Winnemucca, R.E.M. spelled out their greeting on the 50-foot high screen: "It's really great to be in (your city's name here),") followed by read-along admonitions such as "Don't wait for the quietest moment in the quietest song to yell `Play Radio Free Europe!" '

But rock bands thrive on persona, and for R.E.M. that means Michael Stipe. Although he shared the musical bulk of the musical equally with guitarist Buck, Stipe is the maniacal master of ceremonies, a flailing dervish whose arms and legs swing like a tangled marionette.

There were a few minor problems. Buck's guitar was occasionally lost between Mike Mill's bass and drummer Bill Berry's poundings, and Stipe periodically reverted to the mumbling that vexed early R.E.M. fans who were sure he had something to say, but hadn't a clue as to what it was.

But those moments were few. The bottom line is that R.E.M was superb.