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Stipe, R.E.M. hot on the trail

R.E.M. may be fresh off the Vote for Change tour, but just days before the presidential election, it is not backing down.

The Athens, Ga.-based outfit has never been shy about supporting causes its members have believed in, be it at the grass-roots level in their hometown or alongside such established artists as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and the Dave Matthews Band on a national stage. Friday night at the FleetCenter, the band managed to incorporate both, acknowledging the recent successes of the Red Sox, while stumping for the prompt removal of George W. Bush from office.

The first salvo was fired on ''Exhuming McCarthy," as lead singer Michael Stipe, in a smart dark suit and white shoes, sang sincerely of a loyalty to ''the Bank of America."

The song was later followed by the straight-ahead rock melody and not so subtle message of ''Welcome to the Occupation." One got the impression that the lyric, ''Listen to the Causeway," had nothing to do with the address of the FleetCenter.

More obvious was the singer's cry demanding a rematch (a nod to Florida, perhaps) during the song ''World Leader Pretend." Yet to its credit, R.E.M. kept the onstage banter minimal, preferring to let the music speak for itself.

Of course, there were exceptions to this rule, most involving the region's recently crowned world champions. Stipe admitted to not being a sports fan, but then continued, ''I know an underdog when I see one, and I know a winner when I see one." He then dedicated a fiery version of ''The One I Love" to the Sox.

During the encore, Stipe even donned a Sox jersey for ''What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and spoke with joy of the thrill of meeting Sox relief pitcher Len DiNardo following sound check that afternoon. ''He's got a grip like the Incredible Hulk," Stipe cracked.

Despite the joy of local victories, R.E.M. was focused on bigger wins. Peter Buck drove ''Walk Unafraid" with a driving guitar that alternated between escalating tension and scattering dissonance, after Stipe had started the song backed by only a sparse keyboard.

Prior to ''Bad Day," a jumpy single that speaks of the singer's tiredness of ''being jerked around," he loudly proclaimed, ''Dick Cheney, we're watching!"

Yet all of the band's obvious intentions never obscured the players' pure joy in performing. The celebratory ''Man on the Moon" that concluded the performance had every hand in the house raised, regardless of party affiliation. This despite Stipe's earlier response to a fan who had shouted, ''Four more days," with a smiling nod. ''I like that, stranger."

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