REM, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Tripping the light fantastic: a band at the peak of its powers
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The Independent Culture

REM have received some unaccountably sniffy reviews for what is surely their best album since Automatic For The People, but that critical disdain hasn't, on this showing, transferred to their audience. The Around The Sun material was, on Saturday night, greeted just as warmly as the back-catalogue classics, with songs such as "Leaving New York", "Electron Blue" and "I Wanted To Be Wrong" already assuming the familiarity of old friends.

REM have received some unaccountably sniffy reviews for what is surely their best album since Automatic For The People, but that critical disdain hasn't, on this showing, transferred to their audience. The Around The Sun material was, on Saturday night, greeted just as warmly as the back-catalogue classics, with songs such as "Leaving New York", "Electron Blue" and "I Wanted To Be Wrong" already assuming the familiarity of old friends.

The latter song is offered, along with the angry Dylanesque strum of "Final Straw", as the band's protest of the policies of the current United States administration. They're the most considered and subtly poetic agit-pop diatribes of the present era, with the shame and bewilderment of "I Wanted To Be Wrong" left dangling in the closing line "Destroy the things that I don't understand": Bush's foreign policy in a nutshell and al-Qa'ida's, too, a bitter reflection on the shared contempt of fundamentalists. Michael Stipe posits the Gandhian power of love in "Final Straw", his assertion that "Love will be my secret weapon/I don't believe I am alone" getting whoops of assent from the crowd.

For a performer once so crippled by introversion who could barely raise more than a murmur, Stipe has become the consummate Post-Modern showman, becoming Megaphone Mike for the rousing "Orange Crush", and getting the audience roaring over the coda of "Everybody Hurts", by cupping his hand behind his ear. (He's also matured into a fine, distinctive singer, something which seemed impossible earlier in his career.)

For this tour, Stipe adopted a striking green greasepaint ring circling his head around his eyes, which recalls both Green Lantern's domino mask and also, in some lights, a blindfold - a charged gestalt of Justice League of America superhero and Abu Ghraib, the prisoner, that comments as eloquently as any of his lyrics about the troubled values of his country.

The stage set may be REM's most spectacular yet, consisting of dozens of light tubes hanging above the band, running through various surges and colour-changes - yellow for "Everybody Hurts", red for "Losing My Religion" - in front of plates which ingeniously produce a dazzling backdrop of horizontal sparks and flashes, an electrical storm behind songs such as "High Speed Train". It allows the rest of the band to focus on the job in hand, Mike Mills switching between organ, piano and bass, and Peter Buck between guitars, mandolin and banjo, to impart the requisite emotional weight to modern rock's most diverse and durable catalogue of songs. There are surprises - Stipe doing the closing rap to "The Outsiders"; a new, Monster-style rocker, "I'm Gonna DJ", that didn't fit on the new album; and their second live performance of "Swan Swan H" in 18 years - but the overall impression is of energy, intelligence and the kind of amiable, self-deprecating charm we no longer expect from bands of their stature. On this showing, rumours of REM.'s demise are not just premature but risible.

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