Not so shiny or happy now: REM

REM Earls Court, London Hole Brixton Academy, London

In a documentary filmed last year, Michael Stipe was asked why REM wouldn't be touring their new album, Up. "It's not right for this record," he replied, unhelpfully. "It's not where we need to be as a band, out on the road, playing shows every other night." A matter of months later, the band are out on the road, playing shows every other night. What's, as it were, up?

REM's line is that they did a few small-scale showcases to promote Up's release and enjoyed them so much that they thought, why stop now? The more sceptical of my colleagues see the tour as a defibrillator pressed hurriedly to the chest of an album that is dying a commercial death.

My own view is as follows: who gives a monkey's? REM can tour because they want to notch up the air miles as far as I'm concerned. Ingenious and idiosyncratic as their songs are, they're also great for swaying along to in a big shed. And Stipe is simply one of pop's most magnetic front- men. Not only does he have the physique and the moves of a high-speed mime artist, but, vitally, he has the natural eccentricity to make wearing an apron over your trousers and wrestling your mike stand to the floor seem unaffectedly cool things to do.

The decor was quintessential REM: stylish, original and as meaningless or as profound as you wanted it to be. Hanging above the stage were layers of giant neon symbols - a dolphin, a phone, a banana, dozens of faces and logos. The band's local Chinatown must be wondering where all its signs have gone. But spectacular as this Pop-art installation was, if the tour's sole raison d'etre was to advertise Up, REM would have put on a much shinier, happier show than they did at Earl's Court on Wednesday. You could say that they tried to reassure us of their output's continuity, from the old favourites to the new songs. But they did so by making almost every song a fast, dark, moodily lit rocker, shuddering with fuzzy guitar and thumping drums.

REM are an awkward bunch. They gave us "Everybody Hurts" and "Losing My Religion" and other singalong hits, but there are a dozen more in their back catalogue which they didn't play and a dozen obscure album tracks which they did, not to mention a new song about "pushing an elephant up the stairs". Similarly, Stipe would say nothing to the audience for 20 minutes at a time, and then win us back with a charming quip - including a joke about an elephant, oddly enough.

The trio, augmented by three extra musicians, wrong-footed us right up to the finale of the two-hour show. The third to last song was "Parakeet", one of their slowest and most low-key. The second to last song was "Cuyahoga", which is tucked away on Life's Rich Pageant. And then came the last song - a romp through "It's The End of the World As We Know It", with every spotlight and neon sign flashing and Stipe jumping and crawling and rolling across the stage, hopping onto speakers and attempting handstands, as if he'd realised this was his last chance to use up his energy.

Despite - or because of - the departure of their drummer, Bill Berry, and Up's departure from the top 40, REM have retained enough confidence and wilfulness in concert to bounce between crowd-pleasers and crowd- confusers - and so they should. Just because Up is not jostling with the Corrs and Robbie Williams in the album charts doesn't stop its being one of the band's boldest and most beautiful records. If it doesn't sell zillions, that's not REM's loss, it's the loss of anyone who bought Corrs or Robbie albums instead.

Also in London last week was Michael Stipe's buddy, Courtney Love, and her band Hole. Onstage on Thursday, she even thanked REM "for creating me", but in truth, she is her own creation. She is the Geri Halliwell of rock. She asserted on the previous TFI Friday that taking off her top was a feminist statement, which seems very Geri to me. She also has Halliwell's need for fame and famous friends and Halliwell's paranoia about the British press. And the message she yelled over and over on Thursday was pure girl- power. "Don't be cool! Be enthusiastic, don't be cynical!"

I'm going to take her advice, because Love is an infinitely better teen pop star than Halliwell, and was probably the most divine creature that her hormonal fans had ever seen. Once she'd removed a pair of fairy wings from her back, she was dressed in only a pink bra and sequined pants. A former stripper (Geri was a glamour model and a game-show girl, so the analogy holds), Love was insouciantly regal as she promenaded across the stage, summoning girls out of the throng, honouring these subjects with a hug and then depositing them to sit obediently behind her.

It was impossible to take your eyes off Scarier Spice. Indeed, for whole Hole songs, the music went by almost unnoticed. And that's saying something when the noise was as ear-shreddingly ferocious as it was - much more raucous and raw than on last year's terrific power-pop album, Celebrity Skin. In other circumstances I'd dwell on Melissa Auf Der Maur, the feline bassist, or guitarist Eric Erlandson, the Addams Family's butler dressed as a member of Def Leppard. But on Thursday, Love was all we needed.

Some of her histrionics could have been a drama school audition, but I can't remember another rock concert when the air was so charged with all the things it's supposed to be charged with at a rock concert: danger, sex, the corruption of young minds, and the feeling that you hadn't a clue what's going to happen next. Just when you think you've seen it all, a firework showers the audience with glitter or Love beats her breast with a tambourine, or lets out a savage shriek, or stands like the Statue of Liberty on top of a four-metre speaker stack, or casually hands her guitar to a fan as a gift. The lucky recipient won't have been the only girl who went to school a different person on Friday.

Marianne Faithfull and Blondie were in London last week, too, but I've left myself no room to say anything except that both are more intelligent and dignified than almost any of their fiftysomething pop contemporaries. Thus concludes my blonde pop icons triple bill.

REM: Manchester Arena (0161 930 8000) 17 July; Stirling Castle (0131 558 9898) 19- 21 July

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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