First Night: Cultural icons no longer on the up

REM Earls Court London

INTERESTING TIMES for REM, these. On the face of things, they've dealt with drummer Bill Berry's early retirement remarkably well, but anyone who saw the recent Channel 4 documentary on the band would recognise that something uncertain lurks in Bill's slipstream.

On last year's Up album, the band's remaining trio Stipe, Buck and Mills still scored a remarkable result. Pushing the envelope yet again, they dabbled with analogue drum machines and synthesisers to come up trumps. Live, however, REM's inter-band chemistry has always had a delicate balance, and this tour seemed set to test their mettle further.

Last night, the three were joined by multi-instrumentalists Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow and Beck's drummer, Joey Waronker. Overcompensation for Berry, perhaps?

There's no denying that Michael Stipe is an odd character. He has charisma, integrity and one of the most instantly recognisable voices in popular music, but I found it harder to buy into his on-stage persona than almost everyone else at Earls Court. There was a point where Stipe started to tell a joke about an elephant and a mouse, then stopped abruptly. What's this guy on?

Fortunately, there's this other factor, these things called songs which REM excel in. Songs transcend pretension; they can transform three average Joes into cultural icons. Last night, all-American folk classics like "Losing My Religion" and "Sweetness Follows" provided reason enough to sing Stipe's praises, and even John Denver look-alike Mike Mills seemed cool when he was playing "Man On The Moon".

The REM legend is still potent enough for their audience to indulge them, but in places the balance between new and old material was a little delicate.

Of the new songs, "Daysleeper" and "At My Most Beautiful" stood out by a country mile, and the audience reacted accordingly. These are undoubtedly the tracks from Up which sound most like classic REM. Go figure.

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