REM - Hyde Park, Saturday 16th July
Michael Stipe, shaved of head, bare of chest and crushed by eyeliner stands grinning on stage, arms around his bandmates of 25 years, Peter Buck and Mike Mills. The three of them look exhausted but genuinely happy. They have after all just blasted through about as good a six song enchore as any band could have.
The past few years have seen Imitation Of Life become an exhilerating live event, a clarion call of activism and individuality and possibly REM's finest pop song since Man On The Moon. The Great Beyond a bouncing companion piece to said number. That familiar machine gun chatter of drums heralds a welcome return to the set for one of this Londonista's favourite songs ever. The band crash about the stage, Michael forgets a few of the words and the crowd bounce up and down shouting out the Right bits. There's no doubt about it, we all feel fine indeed. I'm Gonna DJ follows, a new track they've been playing all tour and hopefully the direction to which they'll return on the next album. A cheerfully knockabout raucous blast that perfectly catches the live beast that is REM these days. Two to go and it's one last slow one. A huge cheer greets the gentle Nightswimming, couples cuddle up in the cooling air and Michael sits crossed legged on the piano before playfully stomping his feet down on the keys at the end. I guess Mike Mills won't be needing his fingers for a while after tonight anyway. And then there's that sliding guitar intro and some stuff about Elvis and Andy Kaufmann. Michael shimmmies, shapes and beams from the screens as 85 000 people go happily nuts, leaping up and down and singing their hearts out. Micheal hurls himself around, summoning up any final reserves of energy for one last battle cry of Come Onnnnnnnnnnn before they collapse together in a heap of smiles, fooling about and soaking up the atmosphere on this, their last show of the tour.
Jump back a couple of hours and the six men who make up REM saunter on stage with hardly a fuss. The man in the blue suit and the 4" brush applied mascara stands tall surveying the crowd. Then it's a twinkling guitar lick and blue suit becomes a whirling dervish. It's hard to imagine that these guys are now carrying distinguished grey hairs they way they throw themselves into their work.
It's not, been a Bad Day at all (apologies for a terrible line there). Jonathan Rice does some gentle folky acoustic stuff, Idlewild and Feeder know full well that support acts on stadium tours need to keep things up tempo and they keep the slowly filling park entertained with enough bouncy indie pop tunes to make you forget that as a venue Hyde Park is completely rubbish. The curse of the gold circle strikes again and although from the screens it's apparent that most of those with the expensive tickets are indeed fans, it cuts a swathe through the atmosphere, separating us from them and even at the front of the main arena, turns the stage into a playpen for matchstick figures. This is becoming more common in the outdoor venues world and IT MUST STOP. It's the atmosphere of so many people all grouped together that's the only saving grace of gigs this size and splitting us down the middle does not work. For much of the day you feel as if you're at some bizarre garden party with the radio being blown in and out of the wind.
Note to organisers: wind blows sound so turn it up please and if you want to create bottlenecks to the toilets after serving up plentiful amounts of alcohol then don't complain when the stupid drunk people start pissing on the grass. There may be bars everywhere but having one toilet block kind of causes queues.
The early curfew doesn't help with two thirds of the set being played in daylight so for those of us who can only see by watching the screens the full effect doesn't kick in until the sun goes down. But when it does it blasts all the way to the back of the park.
From the front of the back it's not until Everybody Hurts that the folks are dragged from their conversations as they raise their voices to this simple, shared emotion. Detractors defer it as depressing but the air-punching closing refrain of You are not alone, its beautiful simplicty and the communal warmth it generates show otherwise. An Angels for an older generation. The new songs occasionally suffer from short attention spans, with the exception of the gorgeous Leaving New York, but the semi-rapped coda of The Outsiders has Michael Stipe spitting out I am not afraid, I am not afraid and it's hard not to think of the reaction to the recent bombings.
The set pulls from across a catalogue of quality pop tunes. But it's still great to see Stipe swing the megaphone through Orange Crush, or to remember that The One I Love is a truly disturbed love song. There's a request from a guy Peter Buck met in the street which brings a gorgeous version of Murmur's Sitting Still and a showing for Mill's favourite americana bounce of Me In Honey. Another Londonista favourite, the grungy zip of So Fast, So Numb becomes the first track to find a home in the darkening skies and the atmosphere suddenly improves incredibly. Of course they play Losing My Religion and of course everyone sings along. But it's Patti Smith's appearance for E-bow The Letter that gives today's show it's defining moment. To begin with her mic doesn't work and she looks visibly distressed, Stipe visibly disturbed, he drops a queue and there's a feeling that it'a about to go horribly tits up. And then Patti takes Michael's mic and ad libs her haunting vocal line over the end of the song. Everyone, band and crowd, looks on in astonishment. It's incredibly beautiful and becomes some kind of weird jam with the band wondering when she's going to stop but everyone wanting it to carry on. Truly magical and the smiles at the end tell it all.
To be honest REM could pretty much phone in a performance to 85 000 people and it would still be a great show but the glint in Stipe's eyes magnified large across the park tells of a band that couldn't conceive of anything less than playing their hearts out. Their records may no longer gain the critical acclaim of yore, their sound no longer as edgy as the early IRS days but with time they've become more comfortably confident with themselves and their place in the great scheme of things. This has made them a group at the peak of their powers on stage and, as we've said before, one of the most effortless stadium bands at work today.
We are REM and this is what we do