Tuesday, September 02, 2008

'We Are R.E.M. and This Is What We Do'

R.E.M., Twickenham Stadium, 30th August 2008

When REM announced that the UK leg of their tour to promote ‘Accelerate’ would feature stadiums, I felt the group’s management and promoters were being a touch ambitious. No number of silly ‘return to form’ reviews is going to turn around the band’s commercial decline overnight, particularly given that ‘Accelerate’ is hardly a return to the southern gothic folk sound that characterised the band’s years of multi-platinum sales. With the Cardiff show downgraded to an Arena and the entire top tier of Twickenham’s seating completely empty, this feeling proved to be correct.

Still, it’s hard to envisage how this superb show would have worked in a smaller venue. Having reinvented themselves some time ago as a touring act par excellence, the group have really pushed the boat out with this tour. I’ve seen REM some six times since 1995 and this really was by some distance the best performance I’ve seen them give – muscular, charismatic and, ingeniously, providing mass entertainment whilst being firmly uncompromising. Every aspect of the show’s design – including visuals and lighting – had been carefully prepared and orchestrated to enhance the atmosphere.

The sheer brilliance of their set merely heightened the torture of watching support act Editors. Dismissing them as a poor man’s Interpol really is too kind to this wretched band. Their four to the floor beat (constantly pushed ahead of the actual pulse by an aggressive and unsubtle drummer) is relentless rather than insistent (it pounds rather than grooves), the music is arranged with little or no imagination (simply adding some echo effects to the guitars does not make them innovative) and overall the group simply take themselves far too seriously. The earnestness is intolerable, and the whole experience is like being treated as a punch-bag. It left me with a severe headache. Their popularity really is hard to fathom.

This is the fiery, politicised REM that Michael Stipe promised during the pre-release campaign for ‘Around The Sun’. When that album proved to be subdued and mostly soporific, it unsurprisingly provoked a reaction that was somewhat nonplussed. Today, REM are dedicating a storming ‘Man Sized Wreath’ to the memory of Martin Luther King, calling for a sea-change to ‘get the Bush administration the fuck out of office and the Obama administration the fuck into office’, before launching into a visceral, vitriolic ‘Ignoreland’ and admitting ‘we’re kinda political’.

The verbal exhortations are more than matched by the righteous fury of the music, which has been amplified and toughened up. The tracks from ‘Accelerate’ work much better in a live context, sounding genuinely thrilling when stripped of Jacknife Lee’s irritating production techniques. The back-to-basics sound also leads them into unexpected and fruitful corners of their back catalogue, with thunderous versions of ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ (the latter interspersed with soundclips from the McCarthy hearings) being particular highlights.

Luckily, there’s also a good deal of charm and humour to the show, with the comic book graphics emphasising the band’s occasional tendency towards goofiness (ending songs with words like ‘wow!’ and ‘yeah!’. Quite brilliantly, Stipe dedicates ‘Walk Unafraid’ to a particular group of people – “we call them redheads, I think you call them ‘ginge’ – but they’re the most beautiful people in the world”. He then asks the crowd to raise their hands if they have a special ginger in their lives and a surprisingly large number of hands go up. Finally, there’s a brilliant moment when someone puts MORE on the camera lens in Scrabble tiles before the encore.

The set-list is an extremely effective and careful selection that spans their entire career. It’s a shame that there’s nothing from ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ this time, but few people could really mourn the absence of any material from ‘Around the Sun’. Clearly the memory of that album has now been excised. Every other album is covered though – most unpredictably ‘Murmur’ is represented with a lovely rendition of the ballad ‘Perfect Circle’, with Mike Mills at the piano.

The opening triple salvo of ‘Living Well is the Best Revenge’, a slower but more mercurial ‘These Days’ and a strident version of ‘The Wake Up Bomb’ makes for a remarkably confident start. Sometimes bands take a while to hit their stride, but REM leap straight in on this occasion, and the intensity never really lets up. Ken Stringfellow is oddly absent from this tour (perhaps he’s busy with Big Star, but that can hardly be as much of a moneyspinner) and the band compensate for the occasional absence of keyboard shadings by beefing up the guitar assault. For ‘The One I Love’,

As usual, Michael Stipe commands the stage with his deranged dancing, limbs and hands flailing – but it’s also notable that his voice seems in considerably better shape on this tour, less gravely than in previous years. This is particularly welcome on the moments of levity – ‘I’ve Been High’ (a more straightforward, less mesmeric version than on ‘Reveal’ but delivered with real tenderness by Stipe) and ‘Let Me In’, performed in a group circle in a new acoustic arrangement. Stipe’s reading of it, enhancing the melody, is majestic.

The generous half-hour encore not only features the aforementioned ‘Perfect Circle’ but also a haunting, very powerful performance of ‘Country Feedback’, which remains a firm favourite both with fans and the group themselves. The regulars are also saved for the end – ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘It’s The End Of The World (As We Know It)’ and ‘Man On The Moon’ round off proceedings. It still seems staggeringly inappropriate that Stipe does a meet and greet with the crowd during a mass singalong of ‘Losing My Religion’, surely one of the most emotionally articulate and painful songs ever to have become an uplifting stadium anthem, but his generosity with the audience helps reduce the distance between band and audience that can sometimes be a major obstacle with huge shows like this.

So, scrub out what I said in my lukewarm review of ‘Accelerate’. These days, it hardly seems important what REM commit to disc in the studio. It’s extraordinary that 28 years into their existence, they continue to get better and better as a live proposition, still filled with vigour, enthusiasm, a desire to communicate and a sense of fun. That, frankly, is enough of a purpose, and their continued existence remains absolutely vital.

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