INTERESTING TIMES for , these. On the face of things, they've dealt with drummer Bill Berry's early retirement remarkably well, but anyone who saw the recent Channel 4 documentary on the band would recognise that something uncertain lurks in Bill's slipstream. On last year's Up album, Stipe, Buck and Mills still scored a remarkable result. Pushing the envelope yet again, they dabbled with analogue drum machines and synthesisers to come up trumps.
Live, however, 's inter-band chemistry has always had a delicate balance, and this tour seemed set to test their mettle further. Tonight, the remaining trio were joined by multi-instrumentalists Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow, and Beck's drummer Joey Waronker. Overcompensation for the missing Berry, perhaps?
There's no denying that Michael Stipe is an odd character. His vein-doodled bald head tapers away to his chin like a Mekon's. He has charisma, integrity and one of the most instantly recognisable voices in popular music, but I found it harder to buy into his on-stage persona than almost everyone else in Earl's Court. There was a point where Stipe started to tell a joke about an elephant and a mouse, then stopped abruptly. What's this guy on? Fortunately, there's this other factor, these things called "songs" which excel in. Songs transcend pretension. They can transform three average Joes into cultural icons. Tonight, all-American folk classics like "Losing My Religion" and "Sweetness Follows" provided reason enough to sing Stipe's praises, and even John Denver lookalike Mike Mills seemed kind of cool as he was playing "Man on the Moon".
Stipe may occasionally be a somewhat self-conscious star, but he doesn't shun the limelight. He's famous for knowing the famous and, with his chums Courtney Love and Patti Smith both in town for their own shows, one wondered if either of them would make a guest appearance. In the end, Stipe kept the spotlight to himself, occasionally stepping forward to wiggle his hips at the front rows. His trademark shamanistic dancing seems to have become a little more camp lately. There were moments when he made Jimmy Somerville look butch. The legend is still potent enough for their audience to indulge them but, in places, the balance between new and old material was a little delicate tonight. Of the new songs, "Daysleeper" and "At My Most Beautiful" stood out by a country mile, and the audience reacted accordingly. These are undoubtedly the tracks from Up which sound most like classic . Go figure.
play Glastonbury tonight. `Suspicion', the new single, is out Mon (WEA). A version of this review appeared in later editions of Wednesday's paper