Close your eyes and the years fall away. An inventive arpeggio on a Rickenbacker; a melodic bass line; sharp staccato drumming as the singer attempts to communicate to an unreceptive world. But this wasn't a relatively unknown Georgian quartet playing a cold December night in the pre-Lion King Lyceum; this was the Royal Albert Hall, the best part of a quarter of a century later, and REM were rediscovering a love of spontaneity and precision. That December, the opening song was "Second Guessing"; this time, it was "Living Well Is the Best Revenge", with the band taking their new album's title, Accelerate, to heart and picking up the pace. What followed was the majority of the new album interspersed with a few choice favourites from the Nineties. The band's earlier work, with which the new material resonates rather than repeats, was unrepresented.
The songs were delivered with an intensity and a passion only intermittently apparent the last time REM played in London, just over the road in Hyde Park. This re-energised REM delivered a strong set of short, to-the-point new songs with strong melodies, choruses and typical Michael Stipe lyrics: "Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key?/ Where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?" Forty minutes passed, punctuated by "Drive", "Electrolyte" and "Final Straw", before things slowed as Stipe introduced "a beautiful song". The opening notes of "Losing My Religion" on the mandolin elicited the biggest cheer of the night, not surprising given the unfamiliarity of much of the material played.
The singer's introduction to this classic track, in which he referred to Dick Cheney's "they were all volunteers" response to the news of the 4,000th US serviceman to die in Iraq, was the only overt political comment. The joker in Stipe, however, was much in evidence. The highlight was when he persuaded the lead guitarist, Peter Buck, to speak on stage. "It takes the Royal Albert Hall to get Peter to speak on the lead mic," he giggled, while extracting stories about the venue from each of his band mates. "Man on the Moon" completed a set in which 16 songs were delivered in little more than an hour. The frustrating brevity of the set was alleviated by the quality of the new songs and their passionate delivery.
The support acts also compensated. The opening bands, Foals and the Duke Spirit, showed flashes of promise, but battled with a dreadful sound mix, and Robyn Hitchcock on guitar and John Paul Jones on mandolin played an acoustic set of gently seductive beauty, a counterpoint to the aural assault to follow.
Peter Hopkins, civil servant. Haywards Heath
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