Radio stations have emergency playlists: music to use when bad thingshappen. In the last 10 days, we’ve heard a lot of Angels, much amorphousColdplay, and a good deal of REM.
Whatever you think of thatreaction, you can’t deny the comforting power of these songs. Each of themanthematically simple, each with its trite-but-true chorus. They help.
This was an odd show. I, at least, expected more comfort. You wouldcertainly expect some kind of address to the London bombings, whichpostponed the gig a week, which rearranged the end of this long world tour,and which brought in airport scanners to search the queue.
Of course, it isno easy subject to broach – but there is a sense that they are avoidingeye-contact, an uncomfortable evasion. It is a strangely subdued REM whotake the stage, with an early post-bombs curfew, at 8:15pm. There is littlebanter. Michael Stipe does not sing to the front row, as he so often has before -instead, he thanks the road crew and the merch men.
Of course, they are a great live band. Bad Day comes first and iseffortlessly energetic. Then a round from the back catalogue: What’s theFrequency Kenneth begins a charge of magnificent, hollering rock. Later, anencore from heaven holds Man on the Moon, It’s the End of the World As WeKnow It, and I’m Gonna DJ, from the dubious Around the Sun, which, slidingout of End of the World, stands up rather well. Best of all isNightswimming, with Stipe and Mike Mills alone spotlit. Stipe perches on thepiano: part alien, part Shirley Bassey, all genius.
I wish I could say it was all like that. Generally distant stage presenceaside, things really start to slip when hits give way to new material,beginning with Wanderlust, a dreadful impostor of an REM song. They losethe crowd, and they lose momentum.
But the real disaster comes in the shape of Patti Smith. It shouldhave been good – in fact, it should have been great. The teenage Stipe wasfamously obsessed with Smith – abd Smith is unexpectedly current. Trampin’ was acritical darling if ever there was one, and she is in town for her Meltdowncuration. But after the applauded introduction, and after the opening barsof E-Bow the Letter, she fumbles. You can’t hear her properly, but what youcan hear is badly off-key. From 100 yards away, it looks like her mic is settoo high on its stand. She pulls down on it, but gives up; she tips thestand to lower the mic, then puts it back upright. Maybe, after all, she hasforgotten the words. It is a horribly embarrassing experience, and when thesong finally stumbles to a close, she leaves the stage without a word.
It takes a while to recover from that: till the encore, in fact. The restof the main set, despite a valiant Orange Crush, is rather makeshift, andStipe’s voice starts to crack – even the hits fall oddly flat. It’s ahorrible shame, because there are fine moments here, of the sort that only aband as experienced and confident as REM can engineer. But it is sadlytypical of a show which, for all efforts, feels somehow compromised, and notas it should be.