No one was really sure what to expect the first time R.E.M. performed live without drummer Bill Berry. Berry had been behind the kit for the college-rock troupe even before they played their first-ever gig at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on April 5, 1980. Now, more than 18 years later—and eight months after Berry officially left R.E.M.—the band would take the stage not in front a thousand or so of their closest friends at Athens’ 40 Watt Club, but rather at the third-annual Tibetan Freedom Concert festival at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium in front of 100,000, also there to see the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine.
You must remember that not only had R.E.M. not performed live without Berry before—not including part of a performance on March 1, 1995 when he suffered an aneurysm and Grant Lee Buffalo’s Joey Peters finished the set—but R.E.M., itself, hadn’t performed live since the final show of the Monster tour nearly three years earlier.
It would take two drummers—the Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin and Beck’s Joey Waronker—to help fill Berry’s void on June 14, 1998, but if you were expecting dual percussionists to supply double the firepower, that wouldn’t be the case that day.
Rather than play it safe with a hits-laden set, R.E.M. decided to debut four new songs from the forthcoming Up, which wouldn’t be released for four more months. The songs—particularly the opener “Airportman”—showcased a more vibe-y, atmospheric R.E.M. that certainly seemed out of place in an open-air stadium.
Though they did include hits “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon,” the set’s apogee was “E-Bow the Letter,” which featured Thom Yorke (in Patti Smith’s stead) trading vocals with singer Michael Stipe (see video below). Yorke was clearly returning the favor as, a day earlier at the festival, Stipe had sung lead on the Radiohead song “Lucky.”
R.E.M. wouldn’t perform again live until October 18, eight days before the release of their first of five Berry-less albums, Up.