Racing At The Speed Of Light

Athens, Georgia's finest back at the Academy, facing the future, taking on all comers

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TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 2003

Michael Stipe bounds on stage with big smile, outsize cowboy hat and see-through black chemise. His gauche, larger-than-life presence is a suitable intro to R.E.M.’s new face-the-future-or-prepare-to-die incarnation.

The stage set spells out L.U.V in gaudy red neon and the faces of your friendly CEOs Stipe, Buck and Mills look down from the backdrop. Acknowledging the audience demographic, the merchandise stall sells baby grows and, when the group hit a communal connection, those in the crowd not busy texting photos of Michael’s flamboyant performance hold their mobiles aloft.

In such a setting, Stipe’s impenetrable old Enigma Of A Generation pose simply will not wash. Thankfully, tonight he’s ready to fly his freak flag and take on all comers. This could be the start of a tour where R.E.M. restate their credentials following disappointing sales and Buck’s court appearance. Or else it’s where the last great American band of the ’80s squeeze all the juice out of their back catalogue before heading off into the sunset and the retirement home.

They certainly come out fighting. “Get Up” and “The Wake Up Bomb” deliver a devastating intro. Buck throws shapes with gleeful abandon, a Keith Richards impersonation here, a Pete Townshend power chord there. Vying with the drummer’s testosterone beat, second guitarist, careering keyboards and Mills’ rolling thunder, the group summon a gargantuan sound, a curdled parody of American excess. The theme reaches a clarion call climax with “Imitation Of Life”.

The churning fury is mere scene setting for “Animal”, a new song due for inclusion on this autumn’s In Time collection. Stipe wails and Mills cuts across his “racing at the speed of light” hook line. With Buck firing off salvoes that would melt his Rickenbacker licks of yesteryear, the music is intense and exacting, levelling all in its path.

“Drive”, with its ominous atmosphere and surly rebuke to the modern day automaton lifestyle, cools the pace and allows Stipe to assert a humanity which risked being steamrollered out of existence in the opening onslaught. Then it’s a masterful body swerve into a three-in-a-row selection from Fables Of The Reconstruction (recorded in north London in winter ’85). Around 80 songs have been rehearsed for the tour, and the clattering punk sneer of “Driver 8” provides a joyous detour into the past, where the cult R.E.M. could ignore, rather than embrace the zeitgeist.

As the end looms, the onus increasingly falls on Stipe to deliver the show’s emotional thrust. He recounts previous Academy visits?as film producer for Velvet Goldmine, as a Smiths fan copping moves off Morrissey. He delivers his mission statement “to work to the full extent of my ability” with the earnestness of a boy scout.

But he seems happiest when he camps it up, leering as he flashes his nipples, or wryly responding to a heckler, “You take yours out and I’ll think about it.” Spreading love and happiness is his goal, and he hits the back of the net with the euphoric “Man On The Moon”. Of course, the shadow of the war and what it means to be an American post-Iraq cannot be avoided. So Stipe does an oath-of-allegiance pisstake and Buck delivers a Hendrix-alike guitar burn on the national anthem. They take a half-baked lunge at Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power”, but it’s delaying the inevitable?”It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” is a song tailor-made for these perilous times and it offers a joyful deliverance. Stipe throws the mic to the crowd and, before Buck carries him off stage, he stands miming while the fans sing the chorus. All that acclaim and a little art joke on the side? No wonder he’s smiling?on this showing, the retirement home is still a long way off.


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