REM are firing up “Orange Crush”, their veiled commentary on the plight of a promising young buck packed off to serve in Vietnam, and 40,000 people are on their feet, high-clapping for all they’re worth. Later, Michael Stipe will urge everyone to “put your hands up in the air” prior to a song about a dead comedian and lunar conspiracies. “Man On The Moon” kicks in, and everybody starts hugging each other. Hugging! This seems too weird. Since when did REM become everyone’s favourite feel-good stadium band?

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REM – Lancashire County Cricket Ground, Manchester, August 24 2008

REM are firing up “Orange Crush”, their veiled commentary on the plight of a promising young buck packed off to serve in Vietnam, and 40,000 people are on their feet, high-clapping for all they’re worth. Later, Michael Stipe will urge everyone to “put your hands up in the air” prior to a song about a dead comedian and lunar conspiracies. “Man On The Moon” kicks in, and everybody starts hugging each other. Hugging! This seems too weird. Since when did REM become everyone’s favourite feel-good stadium band?

Yet here they are, cracking open a week of UK arena dates by playing, literally, on Freddie Flintoff’s home turf. The European jaunt of the last few weeks has, by all accounts, been a successful one. REM have been playing loud and loose, with a rotating setlist (sprinkling the new “Accelerate” tunes with songs dating back to the murmury old days of 1984) seemingly evidence of a band with a renewed sense of who they are and where they’re at. In short, they appear to have exorcised any lingering traces of self-doubt in the wake of their previous LP, 2004’s underwhelming “Around The Sun”.

“Accelerator” has found REM rediscovering their inner garage-band with a set of sharp, amp-bothering rock songs. But for a legacy resting on a series of ‘80s/early ‘90s records(from “Murmur” through “Document” and on to “Automatic For The People”), it’s hardly breaking new ground. These days, REM seem at their most potent in a live setting rather than a studio one.

They take the stage suited and trim, bursting into “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” then fairly tearing at “These Days” like their lives depended on it. Indeed, Stipe worries the mic so much during the finale that he looks like a rogue dog locked onto a prime cut of sirloin. Then they’re up and off into “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” It’s an almighty racket and the greatest triple-salvo start I’ve ever seen them deliver, aided by the amusing spectacle of Stipe doing an odd zombie walk during Peter Buck’s guitar break.

Buck, as it turns out, is at his understated best tonight, picking out the arpeggios and laying waste the power chords with equal verve. Mike Mills, mostly stage-front with Stipe, is having a ball too, making with the rock-god poses while carefully planting those sideways lines that have always hoisted him above the average bass player. Scott McCaughey, looking like a rumpled, enigmatic Warren Zevon, all black shades and Einstein hair, keeps the rhythm ticking smartly. Stipe seems particularly energised: “How the fuck are you tonight? We have a lot of surprises for you. Hope you guys are up for it!”

George Dubya takes a predictable bashing on “Man-Sized Wreath”, Stipe prefacing things by expressing eagerness for the imminent collapse of the Bush administration. It’s a mighty song too, like it’s just arrived pumped-up from the gym, and to ram the point home, 1992’s breathless “Ignoreland” is extended to a similar cause. “We really really really hate our government,” asserts Stipe, “and have done for a long long time.” “Ignoreland”’s rampaging brilliance is equalled by the song that’s slipped between the two: “Fall On Me”. If you were ever in doubt as to the power of Mike Mills’ counterpoint harmonies, and the added textures they have brought to REM music down the years, this dispels it. Post-“Ignoreland”, a mate turns to me, marvelling at how they made it sound like classic Iggy & The Stooges. As if on cue, Stipe pipes up: “In 1995, they built a special mike-stand for me, designed after Iggy Pop. I broke it in three stages.” Spooky.

The new songs continue to sound terrific, particularly “Hollow Man” and “I’m Gonna DJ”, but the highlight tonight, for me at least, is “Pretty Persuasion”. An arpeggio’d beauty from 1984’s “Reckoning”, the giant monitors framing Buck’s blurry guitar work, it reminds me of why I fell in love with REM in the first place. To these young ears, nothing in living memory sounded as mystical as that first couple of REM albums. The strange thing is, I still feel the same way. Not everyone shares my unbounded joy though. Next song “The Great Beyond” is greeted more like a lost relative, people whooping and bouncing. An incredibly spirited “So Fast So Numb” sounds almost evil in its execution, followed by another nostalgia fest in “7 Chinese Bros.” By “The One I Love”, Stipe is down into the crowd, busily engaged in meet-and-greets with a slack-jawed front row.

There’s a slight lull, starting somewhere around “Reveal”’s “I’ve Been High”, but Stipe is soon back to form on “Let Me In”, his 1994 meditation on Kurt Cobain. As when REM do “Country Feedback”, the singer chooses to turn his back on the crowd, heightening the feel of eavesdropping on some private meditation, though that’s soon torn asunder by a raucous “Horse To Water”. “Orange Crush”, of course, is where we came in, Stipe digging out the megaphone as the audience provide the beat. The hysteria has truly set in by the time “Imitation Of Life” closes the set, bobbing on a sea of raised mobile phones.

Save for an unexpected “Mr Richards” (a request, explains Stipe cryptically, from “someone we’ve admired for years. And we’ve hardly rehearsed it”), the encore is all pumped fists and shout-along choruses. REM, of course, are no longer the subtle beast they once were. But to say they’ve grasped the stadium ethic in all its varying dimensions is an understatement. They’re masters at it. And you can’t help feeling, well, pretty psyched.

SETLIST

Living Well Is The Best Revenge

These Days

What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

Drive

Man-Sized Wreath

Fall On Me

Ignoreland

Walk Unafraid

Hollow Man

I’m Gonna DJ

Electrolite

Pretty Persuasion

The Great Beyond

So Fast So Numb

7 Chinese Bros.

The One I Love

I’ve Been High

Let Me In

Horse To Water

Bad Day

Orange Crush

Imitation Of Life

Supernatural Superserious

Losing My Religion

Mr Richards

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Man On The Moon

ROB HUGHES