Tracks about being alienated from humdrum society and mainstream thoughts were once what made REM unusual and marvellous.
They were never U2; the mysterious Stipe appeared to be Bono's polar opposite. However, "The Outsiders" is a song for a much younger band, not one that has been going for more than 20 years and has conquered the world. Lines such as "I'm scared of the storm/ the outsiders are gathering/ a new day is born" do Stipe little credit. The enigmatic singer's lyrics, at their finest, conjure an eerie swirl of balmy images and witty phrases. Such as on "E-Bow The Letter" (from the underrated album New Adventures in Hi-Fi): "I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars/ Hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiaras/ Dreaming of Maria Callas/ Whoever she is."
As a treat, they played the mesmerising track this evening and invited the peerless Patti Smith on stage to duet on it. Clearly meant to be a highlight of the gig, it turned into a tender disaster. With her microphone stand far too high, poor Patti's voice was barely audible. It was a mild comedown, especially after Smith's highly successful term as curator of Meltdown last month. Nevertheless, Stipe sweetly held her close to his mike and they muddled through.
This was not a night for wallowing in the rich complexities and nuances of Stipe's eccentric lyrical universe. This was a moment for gargantuan screens flashing REM in red and blue neon and raising your beer aloft in a field. "It's the end of the tour as we know it", he quipped and this was an evening for singalong anthems. In this respect, REM did not disappoint.
After a rather lacklustre start with "Bad Day", Peter Buck unleashed some suitably distorted power chords for "What's the Frequency, Kenneth", the best rock song off their least intimate album, Monster. This was followed up by a faultless rendition of "The One I Love", which was blissfully and characteristically free of any embellishment and adhered simply and exquisitely to the recorded form. On "Drive" the fortysomethings were more playful, with Stipe adopting a Tom Waits-like croak, occasionally gargling the lyrics. Also his spindly body began to do its trademark jerking and twitching movements. Also sporting a splash of blue paint across his face, from ear to ear, covering his eyes, Stipe resembled a villain from a Marvel comic. It all played well on the big screens.
After a few choice words about George Bush, Stipe launched into one of the stronger and more heartfelt tracks on the new record, "Final Straw" - a tirade against his gormless leader. However, there is no mention, throughout the evening, of the London bomb attacks. An odd omission, especially given the gig had to be cancelled (previously scheduled for this previous Saturday) because of them. Perhaps Stipe's concern for London was implicit in the way he performed "Everybody Hurts". He appeared to apply special emphasis to "take comfort in your friends" and "you are not alone". Or is that clutching at straws?
Griping aside, this was still an exceptional performance. Stipe's voice was impeccable and Mills and Buck performed admirably. And there were some indisputable gems too. The gorgeous "Nightswimming"(from Automatic for the People) was part of the five-song encore. Stipe ended the beautiful lament by clambering on to Mills's piano, rubbing his stubbly skull and clapping at his fellow band member, before planting a kiss on him. The equally luscious "Electrolite" (New Adventures in Hi-Fi) was also surprisingly and joyfully wheeled out.
Ultimately, an accomplished performance from a band who have a lost a little of their mystery, but none of their expertise or flair.
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