Barely 3 years after the last REM show, here we are again! This time it's different; in 2005 REM were coming off possibly their most disappointing 2 albums of their career, and delivered a variable performance, often excellent, always worthwhile, but occasionally lacking in quality or commitment. This time they're back with a bang - the old lion finding its' teeth and roaring with a vengeance with new CD "Accelerate", arguably their best for 15 or so years, and also with something perhaps to prove, to re-establish their relevance in 2008. This could potentially translate to a very exciting show, so I was well up for it!
So I hit the road with Beef, using the Southampton University site park and ride, which seemed very well organised with waiting buses and cordoned-off roads to the venue. Hit the place - Hampshire's cricket ground - at 1/2 past 3, in time for the ticketless Beef to get sorted and to join the queue for 4 o'clock doors. Couldn't take my sarnies in, which was a pain, and the doors opened late as well. Bah.
Surprised at how small the Rose Bowl was as well! I always thought cricket grounds were way bigger than footy pitches, but this didn't seem so - low stands and the wicket cordoned off made it seem even smaller! The park and ride attendant said 17,000 tickets had been sold for tonight, and looking around this seemed plenty!
Found a spot stage right and camped up for the late-running Guillemots, on at 5.45. I'd been disappointed by their first CD, finding it cluttered and schizophrenic, but it made more sense "live". Stripped back to a 4-piece, without the horns, which unnecessarily embellished the CD, their folk-tinged songcraft shone through more brightly. Singer Fyfe, pinching himself at supporting REM, was charming, "Made Up Love Song" was pretty, and closer "San Paulo" featured some exciting clattering percussion, rounding off a surprisingly good set.
Main support Editors, on at 7, took it up a few notches and were utterly faultless. The sound was perfect for them, and they exploited this to perfection. The hour-long set, drawn equally from their good if slightly derivative debut "The Back Room" and last year's superb, defining "An End Has A Start" follow-up, was perfectly paced and a total delight. The guitar sound, disappointingly thin in parts at their recent Academy gig, was sorted from the outset, soaring and haunting, and recalling the lush atmospherics of Kitchens Of Distinction. The last CD title track was strident and powerful; "Munich" broody, angular yet still singalong, and the brilliant "Smokers" taut and atmospheric. Tom Smith, energetic and kinetic, was the focus throughout, his baritone doomy yet rich, providing the perfect embellishment for their dark, 80's rock sound. "Thanks to REM for this opportunity, this is a dream come true," said Tom at the climax of their set - on the evidence of this, they'd better get used to the big stage, as tonight they firmly established their future stadium credentials.
Dusk descended but thankfully the rain held off from leaden skies, and a seemingly enthusiastic crowd heralded the entrance of REM at 8.30. The best review I'd read of new album "Accelerate" suggested that "Michael Stipe has disappeared so far up his own arse, he's rediscovered his heart!" Certainly this album has emphatically stopped the recent rot, and by tonight's evidence has given them back their appetite for performing. As per the Cardiff show 3 years ago, they opened with a venomous "Bad Day", Stipe's disgust at the current US administration evident, then kept the pace with an incendiary "Living Well Is The Best Revenge", the startling opener from the new CD, and an angular, riff-tastic "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?". Unlike Cardiff, however, they then kept the quality high with a frankly amazing "Fall On Me", still my favourite REM song and one of at least 3 truly jaw-dropping moments tonight. By now, I'd pushed forward, following a big guy and his little Asian girlfriend, but found myself surrounded by people who didn't want to be jostled by someone dancing. Hey, you're at a gig, get used to it! "I've not been feeling too well today, so I need you to send me your heat," said Michael at this point, prompting me to say to my erstwhile dancing partner, "I think he's just given us permission to dance, Big Man!"
REM tonight delivered a perfectly chosen set, revisiting the whole of their recorded output, plucking a couple here, a couple there, rewarding the loyal and true fan. Thus when they played "Begin The Begin" from 1985's wonderful "Life's Rich Pageant", I threw shapes with abandon, and likewise jumped about deliriously to "Pretty Persuasion" from 1981's "Reckoning" (another jaw-dropper - simply the fact they'd delved that far back!), both times to total bemusement from this crowd of undeserving gig tourists. Lots of light and shade too; "Electrolite" featured Michael calling for mobile phones to be held aloft to, "turn this into Los Angeles," and a wonderfully stark and moving "Nightswimming", delivered with voice and piano only, was another jaw-dropper. Plenty of time for Michael to tub-thump about his hatred for his government, underlined by a vicious "Ignoreland" and welcomed with sympathetic cheers. Political activism, sure, but it never ventured into hectoring, like his brief plug for Oxfam during the encore. Keep it brief, don't preach, get your message across more effectively. Bono, take note.
A funky, singalong "Orange Crush" and a breathless "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" closed a 1 1/2 hour set - wow, where did that go? New single "Supernatural Superserious" kicked off the encore, then Buck strapped on the mandolin for the inevitable "Losing My Religion", which finally animated this rubbish crowd. "Imitation Of life" followed, which was surprisingly excellent and has stuck in my mind since then. "Come on, come on, no-one can see you try..."
Then the denouement. We'd done our research, so at the opening bars of "Man On The Moon" (the final song every night of the tour), I bade farewell to my dancing friends and headed off, meeting Beef at the West Exit and leaving on the final note at 10.30. A quick park and ride departure, a smooth unhurried exit and home before midnight. Once again, excellent organisation to cap an excellent gig.
At a time when American rock is sagging under the weight of pretension or blandness, we need a healthy REM. Tonight was the resurrection - back to their best, not just going through the motions as a 30 year old band, but as relevant, groundbreaking and vital as ever. Gentlemen, welcome back.