REM earn their Stipes

by John Aizlewood, Evening Standard

They last performed in London in the spring of 2001. R.E.M.'s free concert in Trafalgar Square was musically inauspicious and overshadowed by guitarist Peter Buck's air-rage arrest on his flight from Seattle.

Lacklustre dates at Earl's Court the previous year, allied to disappointing sales for their Up and Reveal albums, hardly helped dispel the notion that the end was distinctly nigh.

However, R.E.M. are nothing if not doughty.

Souls were searched, Buck was cleared and the R.E.M. of 2003 brims with renewed purpose.

Before the year is out, In Time, a greatest hits collection, will confirm their status as rock giants and on Friday they headline Glastonbury.

Last night, three dates into a European tour, they played the first of two engagements - tonight's is sold out too - at the sweltering Brixton Carling Academy, with a set which spanned almost the entirety of their 23-year career.

These days, R.E.M. are at ease with their megastar status. Bassist Mike Mills was his usual jocose self, the self-effacing Buck spoke only to wryly confirm that his lawyer was present and to dance in the manner of a hyperactive fitness instructor during the closing It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

But singer Michael Stipe has changed, and changed for the better. Where once he was frustratingly aloof, now - without sacrificing the rarefied nature of R.E.M. - Stipe lets the world in.

He thanked The Radio Times for whitening his teeth, he admitted appropriating some of Morrissey's stage moves after he and Mills saw The Smiths at this very venue, and he even toyed with sincerity-cum-humility: "My job is to make sure everyone goes home feeling their time and energy have been well spent. I hope I'm doing my job."

Atmosphere established, the music blossomed. They aired rarely played album tracks, such as Walk Unafraid, from Up, which revealed itself to be a lost little gem.

Having apparently rehearsed 75 songs, they were in a position to exhume tracks from Fables Of The Reconstruction, recorded in Wood Green in 1985.

Most notable was a clattering Driver 8, evidence that R.E.M.'s punk heart still beats when the mood takes them.

A brace of new songs proved their dander is truly up.

Animal featured scattergun vocal interplay between Mills and Stipe, whilst Bad Day was the kind of rattling, melody-laden up-tempo stomp they seemed to have long-eschewed.

The hits took on new life. Man On The Moon and Losing My Religion were reminders that, for two mid-Nineties albums, R.E.M. achieved the unique feat of being both the world's most popular band and its most outstanding.

The twisted bitterness which made The One I Love their most misunderstood song was still deliciously tacit and Imitation Of Life bustled along in elegiac fashion.

Everybody Hurts eclipsed the lot and even at a temperature Stipe claimed was 105 degrees, still sent shivers down the spine.

It began gently and built into a mesmerising, moving crescendo with Stipe crooning "hold on, hold on, hold on"; as if his life depended on it.

At that moment it felt like all our lives depended on it.

A special evening and that rarest of shows: a genuine event.

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