Sunday, July 17, 2005

Music Will Provide The Light You Cannot Resist

R.E.M. wow Hyde Park 16/7/05

R.E.M.'s massive Hyde Park gig may have been postponed due to the tragic events of last week, but the impact of the band's performance was certainly not diminished. In fact, despite Michael Stipe not making any specific references to the events as he had at the band's other UK concerts last week, some moments here resonated with increased poignancy, particularly a hypnotic version of 'The Outsiders' (which ends with the words 'I am not afraid') and the strident 'Walk Unafraid'. As it was now the final date of the band's gargantuan world tour, it was a night of many surprises.

First, a few words about the support acts. We arrived a little later than planned, so only heard Jonathan Rice whining from outside the park. It sounded more than a little earnest and worthy from a distance.

Idlewild were up next, and gave us a generous ten-song set. Here is a band that continues to mature and develop with every album, and with material from excellent new set 'Warnings/Promises' sitting comfortably alongside older gems, this was a remarkably confident performance, especially given that they were using a dep drummer. Highlights were 'El Capitan' and 'I Understand It', which are their most structurally ambitious songs to date, as well as improved versions of 'Little Discourage' and 'A Modern Way Of Letting Go'. This band seem to have polarised their fanbase by moving in a more melodic direction, abandoning some of their uncontrolled aggression along the way. The comments that they now sound rather like R.E.M. are not too wide of the mark, although they've yet to incorporate anything resembling Peter Buck's Byrdsian twang. Roddy Woomble certainly makes for an intriguing frontman, and he remains one of the most intelligent and literate lyricists around in British music at the moment. He is showing no signs of being short of ideas.

Sadly, we had to do without Scouse revivalists The Zutons, so we leapt straight to the crushingly uninteresting Feeder who blustered their way through several hit singles. They appear to be one of those bands who remain completely off my radar, yet I seem to recognise a baffling number of their songs. Their older material is punky, but uninspired (see the horrendously simplistic 'Buck Rogers'), whilst the material from the last couple of hours drifts towards plodding tempos and clunky arrangements. All the lyrics and titles seem worthy and dull, lacking any engaging imagery ('feeling a moment', 'just the way I'm feeling', 'we tumble and fall' etc), whilst the melodies never rise beyond the merely conventional.

Bursting on to the stage with little fanfare, R.E.M. break straight into 'Bad Day', a thrilling and effective opener (although they had recently been opening with less predictable 'I Took Your Name'), then moved swiftly on through 'What's The Frequency, Kenneth' and 'The One I Love'. This made for a robust and exciting trio with which to begin proceedings, and it effectively allowed them some freedom for more unusual choices later in the set.

Those choices began relatively early on with a faithful rendition of 'Sitting Still' from their debut album from 1983, with new drummer Bill Rieflin doing an excellent job of imitating Bill Berry's direct and propulsive backbeat. It was a genuine surprise and one of the highlights of the set.

Even more surprising was how well material from 'Around The Sun' sat with their established classics. Even though the album has sold far less respectably than even 'Reveal' or 'Up', it was refreshing to hear so many in the crowd singing along with 'Leaving New York' and 'Electron Blue'. 'Final Straw' sounded fleshed out and less tentative than it had sounded when first performed back on the 2003 tour - it actually worked more convincingly as a protest song this time around. Best of all was a stunning rendition of 'The Outsiders', with Michael Stipe surprisingly convincing when taking on Q-Tip's rap. Peter Buck seemed to be a much more significant presence in these live versions, producing a whole gamut of strange and wonderful sounds from his electric guitar, occasionally even hitting and shaking it for unusual effect. Sadly, not even the extra energy afforded by live performance could rescue the unspeakable 'Wanderlust' - currently my least favourite R.E.M. song by some distance. Why was this chosen as a single for heaven's sake?

The band have worked hard on expanding their arrangements. Whilst the Monster tour was characterised by deliberately straightforward, heavier interpretations of songs, and the Up tour was striking for the integration of keyboards and electronics, recent tours have tried to reconcile these two trends with the countrified sound which might be more familiar to fans of 'Out Of Time' or the southern gothic of 'Automatic For The People'. The presence of multi-instrumentalists Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey remains fundamental to this approach, and the careful orchestration of vocal parts at the close of 'Leaving New York' proved particularly striking. Their keyboards, organ and extra guitar also help to flesh out the sound.

Recent REM gigs have tended to focus on a particular album or period. The 2003 Brixton Academy show focussed heavily on 'Fables Of The Reconstruction' as it had been recorded nearby, and tonight's show had a little subsection devoted to 'New Adventures In Hi Fi', one of the band's most impressive and underrated recordings. 'Electrolite' clearly remains a band favourite, and it seemed wonderfully aposite for such a beautiful, summery day. More unpredictable was a fiery, vitriolic take on 'So Fast So Numb', during which Stipe seemed particularly energised, adopting ever more unusual postures. Then, amazingly, the band were joined on stage by Patti Smith for a devastating 'E-bow The Letter'. Smith's failing microphone undoubtedly muted the initial impact and, clearly unable to hear herself, she looked increasingly tentative and uncomfortable. Having been comforted by Stipe, she shared his microphone. Finally audible, her voice sounded rich and mesmeric. The two together on stage provided a quite extraordinary spectacle, and their relationship is clearly one of genuine intimacy.

All the usual suspects were here of course, with a dependably touching 'Everybody Hurts', a haunting version of 'Drive' and a closing mass singalong of 'Losing My Religion', still one of the most emotionally complex lyrics ever to have struck such a unified chord. It was great to hear 'Me In Honey', one of the less frequently performed songs from 'Out Of Time' and another surprising selection. It's easy to quibble about setlists, and I'm still slightly frustrated that 'Up' and 'Reveal' now seem to be rather neglected (only one song from each), but this was still a well-judged set, carefully constructed to appeal to all setions of the band's remarkably wide audience.

The encore was generous, including 'Imitation Of Life' and an endearing 'Nightswimming' with Michael Stipe sitting on Mike Mills' piano before collapsing on to the keys and planting an unexpected kiss on Mills' cheek. It was a little marred by some unnecessary synth strings - it would surely have been better to leave it as just piano and voice rather than attempt to mimic the John Paul Jones arrangement from the album version. The final run of a truncated 'It's The End Of The World...' running straight into the charmingly silly 'I'm Gonna DJ' ('Death is pretty final/I'm collecting vinyl/I'm gonna DJ at the end of the wooooooorld!') and then the now established finale of 'Man On The Moon' worked particularly well. The band then seemed reluctant to leave the stage, lining up at the front to milk the applause and sing a quick burst of 'it's the end of the tour as we know it'. Mills and Buck then proceeded to carry Stipe off stage.

R.E.M. have clearly put aside the differences that emerged during the protracted process of recording 'Up' and have re-established themselves as a touring act par excellence. Even if their albums have (at least partially unfairly) been viewed as delivering diminishing returns, they still seem able to sell vast numbers of concert tickets on every tour they do. Perhaps this is because of their real quality as entertainers - Stipe remains a charismatic and imposing presence, dancing in a uniquely strange fashion and completely unafraid of the performance aspect of his role as singer. The band also play close attention to the wider dynamics necessary to make huge concerts of this nature successful - they use a mind-boggling array of flashy cinematic techniques to make the big screen footage interesting (perhaps even diverting), including colour filters, grainy textures and quick edits to pre-recorded video footage (particularly effective during 'Leaving New York'). They also make good use of house lights shining on to the audience, a similar trick used by Bruce Springsteen during his marathon shows. Another outstanding performance - until next time then....

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