R.E.M. have progressed from underground sensations in 1983 to megastardom in 2005. After last February’s ill-fated gig, the band returned to Sheffield as part of their Summer tour. We were there, to see if it would be third time lucky for the boys from Athens, GA…
The good people of Sheffield could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been rather cursed when it comes to REM. In 1992, their show at the Arena was cancelled when Bill Berry suffered his brain aneurysm. Then, back in February, the Arena gig had to be cancelled at the last minute due to Mike Mills succumbing to an ear infection. Punters turned up tonight half-expecting to see odds displayed on the chances of Michael Stipe’s arm accidentally falling off during a bizarre gardening accident.
Yet, as the expression goes, third time lucky. Tonight’s gig passed off without a hitch thankfully, and there was even the added bonus of local hero Richard Hawley as a support act. As a former member of both Pulp and The Longpigs, Hawley has had more than a hand in Sheffield’s musical history, and his solo career, while hardly reaching the commercial heights of Jarvis Cocker and company, has produced three wonderfully languid albums. It could be argued that his songs are not exactly well suited to such a cavernous arena, in fact they’d sound more at home in the midnight hours in a smokey bar, but Hawley’s voice sounds good anywhere. A deep, warm mix of Roy Orbison and Scott Walker, it’s possible to just listen to him and forget about the worries of the world.
Ballads such as Something Is… and Baby You’re My Light were swooning masterpieces and he even debuted a few new songs, such as The Ocean, which indicated that his next album could well be his finest moment. The only downside was an idiotic shout from the safety of the darkness to “get off”. A shame, as Hawley deserves to be treated with more respect by his hometown crowd.
No such catcalls for R.E.M., thankfully. As the lights went down, there was a massive roar of anticipation which exploded as the band walked on stage. Mike Mills looked a picture of health, while Peter Buck looks positively slimline these days. As per usual with R.E.M. though, all eyes were on Michael Stipe.
Simply put, Stipe is one of the best frontmen of the modern era. Sauntering onto stage and throwing his cap into the audience, he’s possibly the only man on earth who can paint a blue stripe across his face and make it look cool. Bouncing across the stage doing his strange little epileptic Elvis dance, he was completely magnetic throughout. Opening track I Took Your Name was a odd choice to start the show, given that it was taken from the band’s less celebrated Monster album, but it worked just fine.
The set list was a great mix of classics, such as The One I Love and Losing My Religion, rarely performed tracks like Me In Honey, and new songs from Around The Sun. The latter worked particularly well, with many songs such as Electron Blue and The Outsiders sounding better live than on record (Stipe even performed Q-Tip‘s rather ill-advised rap from The Outsiders and got away with it). Perhaps the highlight of the new material was Final Straw, with the song’s powerful anti-war lyrics scrolling across the big screen as Stipe sang.
The band’s most commercially and critically adored period, the Automatic For The People era, was also well covered. The band could be forgiven for finding Everybody Hurts a millstone around their neck by now, but tonight’s performance was spine-tingling – even if some audience members lapsed into the old stadium rock cliché and produced lighters in the air. Another touching moment was Leaving New York, with Stipe dedicating the song to his “second home, the place in my heart”.
Mills took centre stage for the very welcome rendition of (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, which he dedicated to the staff of the Sheffield hospital who looked after him earlier this year. There was also a rare outing for Murmer’s Perfect Circle, sounding as beautiful as it first did 22 years ago.
There was even room for a new song in the encore in the shape of I’m Gonna DJ, which proved that rumours of the band’s demise are much exaggerated. A fun rocker, it includes the soon to be classic lyric “Death is pretty final/I’m collecting vinyl/I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world”. Man On The Moon provided the perfect ending, being bellowed along to by the 12,000 fans packed into the Arena.
They may not be the hip young things they once were, but even their place at the top of rock’s establishment can’t disguise the fact that R.E.M. can still rock like no other band can.