Radio stations have emergency playlists: music to use when bad things happen. In the last 10 days, we’ve heard a lot of Angels, much amorphous Coldplay, and a good deal of R.E.M. Whatever you think of that reaction, you can’t deny the comforting power of these songs. Each of them anthemically simple, each with its trite-but-true chorus. They help.
This was an odd show. I, at least, expected more comfort. You would certainly expect some kind of address to the London bombings, which postponed 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 is no easy subject to broach – but there is a sense that they are avoiding eye contact, an uncomfortable evasion. It is a strangely subdued R.E.M. who take the stage, with an early post-bombs curfew, at 8:15pm. There is little banter. 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 is effortlessly energetic. Then a round from the back catalogue: What’s The Frequency Kenneth begins a charge of magnificent, hollering rock. Later, an encore from heaven holds Man On The Moon, It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, and I’m Gonna DJ, from the dubious Around the Sun, which, sliding out Of End Of The World, stands up rather well. Best of all is Nightswimming, with Stipe and Mike Mills alone spotlit. Stipe perches on the piano: part alien, part Shirley Bassey, all genius.
I wish I could say it was all like that. Generally distant stage presence aside, things really start to slip when hits give way to new material, beginning with Wanderlust, a dreadful impostor of an R.E.M. song. They lose the crowd, and they lose momentum.
But the real disaster comes in the shape of Patti Smith. It should have been good – in fact, it should have been great. The teenage Stipe was famously obsessed with Smith – and Smith is unexpectedly current. Trampin’ was a critical darling if ever there was one, and she is in town for her Meltdown curation. But after the applauded introduction, and after the opening bars of E-Bow The Letter, she fumbles. You can’t hear her properly, but what you can hear is badly off-key. From 100 yards away, it looks like her mic is set too high on its stand. She pulls down on it, but gives up; she tips the stand to lower the mic, then puts it back upright. Maybe, after all, she has forgotten the words. It is a horribly embarrassing experience, and when the song 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 rest of the main set, despite a valiant Orange Crush, is rather makeshift, and Stipe’s voice starts to crack – even the hits fall oddly flat. It’s a horrible shame, because there are fine moments here, of the sort that only a band as experienced and confident as R.E.M. can engineer. But sadly it feels somehow compromised, and not as it should be.