REM are no strangers to the "secret" show, having pioneered them back in the Eighties, when they would appear at places such as the tiny Borderline Club under amusing pseudonyms such as Bingo Hand Job. Tonight, however, the locale is the some- what more sedate surroundings of St James Church in Piccadilly, and the ClearChannel passes and the BBC pantechnicon parked round the back attest to the grander scheme in which they operate these days.
Tonight's show is being recorded for a BBC Radio 2 transmission as part of the promotional push for the forthcoming album Around the Sun, and accordingly features mainly tracks that few of the invitation-only audience can have heard yet. You might imagine they would ease us gently into the show with a few well-known numbers, but they opt to open with "Animal", a song only available on the In Time hits compilation, and one whose psychedelic-Beatles texture sounds a little muddy in these surroundings. But things improve rapidly with the brooding "Boy in the Well" and the pop-tastic bounce of "Wanderlust", one of the catchier new songs.
During "She Just Wants to Be", the nattily white-suited Michael Stipe appears to salute the audience, in some hangover from the days when his stage act involved many such hand gestures; but then you realise he's just shading his eyes to gaze around the packed balcony pews, as if searching for friends. The new tracks "Final Straw" and "I Wanted to be Wrong" recall an earlier, folk-rock REM, before Thom Yorke is invited up onstage to sing the Patti Smith part of "E-Bow the Letter". Unfortunately, Yorke fluffs his lines and they have to start the song over, Stipe asking the audience to help their guest by putting their hands up when he should come in. The second run through, Yorke nails it, wailing like a banshee.
"Around the Sun" itself cleaves to the eternal REM verities of arpeggiated chords and intriguing harmonies, with the organ adding an echo of early Traffic. "Aftermath" is less distinguished, but "Losing my Religion" brings a community-singalong mood to the church. A neat, short-haired Peter Buck laces an e-bow guitar line through "Walk Unafraid", which closes the set, before the band return for encores of "Leaving New York" - the strongest song on the new album, and its first single - and old favourites "Imitation of Life" and "Man on the Moon".
Despite the staid surroundings and Stipe's lectern, the mood throughout was less like a concert than a party with a few friends, Stipe screwing up his lyric sheets after each song and throwing them out to the crowd, personal souvenirs greedily snatched by punters like home-run baseballs. REM will be back over here in February for a full-blown arena tour, and on the strength of this show, their energies appear more focused now than they have been for some time.
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