Through 27 cities in two months, five silver Le Mirage tour buses carried the R.E.M. caravan of 40-plus musicians and crew members—and three especially shiny, happy people.

Touring for the first time since 1999, Michael Stipe, 43, Peter Buck, 46, and Michael Mills, 44, celebrated their 23 years together in two-hour career-spanning sets onstage as well as oh a new album, In Time: The Best of REM, 1988-2003. It's the latest compilation from a band that nearly broke up when drummer Bill Berry, 45, retired to his Georgia farm in 1997 after suffering a brain aneurysm. "It really shook the foundation of this band," says Stipe. "It made each of us question whether it was time for all of us to quit." Part of the problem, he says, was that the three remaining members tend to be noncommunicative. "We're all guys and we act in very guy ways. We had a complete breakdown in communication. It made for a very unhealthy and weird experience."

After a get-it-off-your-chest group sit-down—"We call each other on our stuff all the time now; they call me on 'Lead Singer Syndrome,' that ego that it takes to get up there and do that," says Stipe—the band decided to soldier on as a trio. Now, says Mills, "our affection for each other is stronger than ever."

So too is the affection of fans, who stayed on their feet throughout shows in Boston and New York City, where the band performed on the Today show. Joining the elated band members in New York were Buck's wife of eight years, Stephanie Dorgan, 44, and their twins Zoe and Zelda, 9, who flew in from Seattle. "In the '80s we'd go out in January and come home in December," says Buck. "Now I spend more time with the kids than most fathers. I pick them up after school, cook dinner, take them to the park."

Mills, the divorced father of a 13-year-old son, still lives in Athens, Ga.—where the band formed in 1980—just 25 minutes away from Berry's farm. ("Hay grows there, but you don't actually have to farm it," he says of his ex-bandmate's leisurely approach to agriculture.) The Manhattan-based Stipe, who coproduced Being John Malkovich, runs a production company that will release the Mandy Moore comedy Saved next year. While Mills seldom sees Buck off-duty, he says, "I run into Michael all the time, in New York, L.A., the bar down the street from my house."

With the tour done, they plan to complete a new studio album, due next spring. As for the long run, quitting time will come only when "we've started sucking," says Stipe. "If we do go flat, I hope we know it before anyone else does."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
Anne Driscoll in Boston

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Driscoll.