Ten years ago, I queued up overnight outside the Sheffield Arena in order to buy tickets for R.E.M. Very few bands would tempt me to spend the night freezing in a concrete car-park but REM were one of them. So, in the days before the internet and the joys of online booking, myself and a friend killed some time by going to see one of the worst Bruce Willis films ever (The Colour Of Night since you ask) and then joined the queue at 1am.
Eight hours later, we had the tickets in our hands. We were cold, we were tired, we had endured a frankly disturbing sex scene between Mr Willis and Jane ‘Sinner From Pinner’ March, but we had them. Weeks later, disaster struck when drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm and the gig was cancelled. Fast forward to 2005 and myself and the same friend were in the horribly renamed Hallam FM Arena waiting patiently to see Stipe, Buck and Mills. Surely nothing could go wrong this time…
Arena gigs do tend to bring out the ‘one concert a year’ people, who this time seemed to be gathered behind me and consisted of lairy middle-aged men who insisted on shouting unintelligible noises throughout the support act Now It’s Overhead. The strangely named quartet hailed from R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens, Georgia and musically bore an undeniable resemblance to their compatriots, especially lead singer Andy LeMaster’s plaintive voice.
They performed a handful of songs which could accurately be described as Doves meeting R.E.M. and it’s easy to see why Bright Eyes‘ Conor Oberst is a fan. I don’t think their music is particularly suited to huge cavernous arena shows but they definitely showed some promise.
Some ten minutes after LeMaster’s band had taken their leave, the unmistakeable figures of Michael Stipe and Peter Buck took to the stage to the predictably ecstatic welcome. Yet something wasn’t quite right. The stage didn’t seem set up correctly, the houselights were still up and Stipe looked oddly distressed. Then we noticed someone was missing…
“We regret to announce that Mike Mills has fallen victim to the ‘flu that’s sweeping Europe at the moment. Not only can he not play, he can hardly stand up at the moment. He is being taken to hospital at the moment and therefore tonight’s gig has been postponed”, a visibly nervous Stipe announced. A wave of disbelief swept through the audience…surely not? Yet it was true and it was clear that the REM at Sheffield Arena curse had struck again.
Yet the night wasn’t over as it transpired that Stipe and Buck would play an acoustic set. What followed was a spine tingling ‘unplugged’ version of The One I Love – the song was slowed down slightly and Stipe’s voice seemed to fill the Arena. There aren’t many bands who could play a stripped down set in such a huge venue but Stipe and Buck made it feel like the most intimate stadium gig in the world.
“We’ve never done this song in this setting before”, said Stipe just before performing Leaving New York, “so I’m really nervous…f*ckin’ terrified in fact!”. He needn’t have worried – while inevitably missing Mills’ harmonies, the song sounded just as good as it did on the recent Around The Sun album. Two extra unannounced musicians joined for this and for a stately version of I’ve Been High, before finishing on a rousing version of Losing My Religion, with the 12,000 fans packed inside the Arena providing backing vocals.
And that was it – after more heartfelt apologies, Buck and Stipe were away and we were left making plans for the rescheduled date on June 15th. The tickets will still be valid, so in effect, this was a freebie R.E.M. mini-set, and you really can’t ask for much fairer than that.