R.E.M. Royal Albert Hall, London
Hey, kids, rock'n'roll – even after all these years: They've been in the business for more than a quarter of a century, but R.E.M. can still pack a charismatic punch
Sunday 30 March 2008
Michael Stipe falls to his knees. Quick as a flash, some wag in stall G shouts, "While you're down there, Michael!"
This one-off R.E.M. gig, a fundraiser for the ICA and a public launch for Accelerate, their 14th album, arrives against the backdrop of the news that the band's lead singer has come out. Again.
This time around, the "news" broke in an interview with US magazine Spin, the New Zealand Herald picked it up and ran with it, and it rippled around an unsurprised world. After all, it feels as though Michael Stipe has come out more times than a flasher's knackers.
He first described himself as "a queer artist" in Time magazine in 2001, but there had been rumours for years, right back to the day in December 1992 when Nicky Wire saying "In this season of goodwill, here's hoping Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury" on stage caused such a pious furore (a remark that was misinterpreted, by the way).
It's been a long process. Maybe he'd been trying to tell us all along. ("Consider this/The hint of the century/Consider this/The slip that brought me to my knees ...") A couple of years ago, in a joint Q interview with Stipe and Rufus Wainwright, the latter began a sentence: "Since we're both gay men ...", prompting the former to quip, "That's easy for you to say." Now we know for sure.
R.E.M. always possessed a certain mystique, a band with other, non-obvious agendas at play, whether sexual or intellectual. (Those mumbled, gnomic lyrics didn't harm that impression.) From the Deep South they crawled, an anomaly even then, among acts from the Whistle Test-endorsed wave of Paisley Underground and New Country, despite the traditionalist chime of Peter Buck's guitars.
Their slight but definite difference has been sufficient to sustain the attention of a loyal following for a quarter of a century (and indeed to justify an irritating sacred cow status among critics), but if tonight proves anything, it's that R.E.M. aren't in the mood for resting on their laurels.
The way they rage into the set opener "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" is a surprise. There isn't an ungrey hair on the stage (and in Stipe's case, no hair at all), but close your eyes and you wouldn't think it. Wearing what looks like a parole suit, this funny little shaven monkey-man – he looks like the penultimate picture in one of those "ascent of man" graphics – is an unquestionably charismatic leader, leaning into the void so that his mic stand and body form a letter X.
"It's such a great honour to be here at Wembley for the seventh night in a row," he jokes, before praising the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall, and the smartness of support act Robyn Hitchcock in choosing to play an acoustic set to match. "But you're not gonna get that from us. It's gonna be ... loud."
Which it is, relatively speaking (in other words, it's R.E.M.-loud, not Slayer-loud), as they clatter through Accelerate. It's often their more haunting moments, though, that hit the spot. Sixteen years on, "Drive" still feels like a bitterly ironic, reproachful epitaph for the entirety of pop culture, paraphrasing David Essex of all people: "Hey kids, rock'n'roll/ Nobody tells you where to go, baby..."
They're in uncharacteristically playful mood. At the end of "The Great Beyond", Stipe hurls his lyric sheets into the crowd (and then issues the schoolmasterly instruction: "If you have more than one, please share with a neighbour"). Bassist Mike Mills joins the fun, going on a spotlit walkabout up the aisles.
There's no "Shiny Happy People". Which annoys me. You can't unleash an earworm on the world, then disown it like it had nothing to do with you. In the way of hits, there is "Losing My Religion", its mandolin melody one of the loveliest in pop's history, the mildly annoying "Imitation of Life" (yes, Michael, we get it, modern culture is artificial) and "Man on the Moon".
As I look around everyone singing lines like "I'm pushing an elephant up the stairs", it occurs to me that had my life panned out differently, it might have been Stipe and not, I dunno, Morrissey upon whose every word I hung. And you know what? That might not have been such a terrible outcome.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election
- 2 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 3 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'