April 15, 2005

REM with Bright Eyes and Little Birdy

Filed under: Archive,Music

Entertainment Centre
6 April

Murray Bramwell

REM’s Adelaide show, their third here, marks the 25th anniversary of their first gig as a band. And while it may seem like the blinking of an eye to some of us, when we hear that Nebraskan support band Bright Eyes’s lead singer Conor Oberst was one month old at that time, it is a reminder what an extraordinary stretch the REM twenty album history really is.

Not that there is anything backward-looking about REM, especially mercurial lead man Michael Stipe. REM is clearly an all-for-one and one-for-all outfit. They have always split song royalties equally and when drummer Bill Berry decided to leave the band there was no permanent replacement. In performance each member is crucial – Mike Mills on bass and piano, filling in the high harmonies, Peter Buck, one of the most under-rated guitarists around, hefting his Rickenbackers and that danged banjo for Electrolite; and then there is Michael Stipe.

At 8pm a lanky figure in a t-shirt comes on stage at the Ent Centre. It is Stipe introducing Perth support band Little Birdy, he came back and did the same for Bright Eyes. Later he spruiked the Amnesty and Oxfam tables in the foyer and sang happy birthday to Brett the sound mixer. Stipe is no ordinary rock star. He has helped forge a band with powerful mainstream radio appeal but he himself is one of the Outsiders he sings about. He is the Boy in the Well, The Man on the Moon. He speaks for the unconventional kid, the besieged Tennessee goth, he knows the Way to Reno. And he knows that sexual preference is many-splendoured and nobody’s business but yours.

Working their way through several dozen of the treasure trove that is their song list, REM gives plenty of space to their excellent current album Around the Sun – Leaving New York, The Worst Joke Ever and Electron Blue, made even more luminous with lighting comprising of vertically suspended fluoro tubes which dripped and flared like candle tapers, turned orange for the Crush and red, white and blue for two strong songs of dissent against the Empire : I Wanted to be Wrong and Last Straw.

But, of course, it is the radio friendly hits that has the crowd in a swoon of recognition – Losing My Religion, Imitation of Life and Bad Day. Stipe knows about outsiders, he also knows about provincial cities. Parakeet is really about Adelaide as well as Brisbane he confides. And when the names of the hundred city tour appear on the widescreen on the lighting rig the countdown to Adelaide brings a rapture of civic complacency.

In every aspect of performance Stipe creates a curious intimacy. It is in his physical strangeness – that vulnerable shaven pate, and, tonight, the stripe of blueish paint masking his eyes like a Soviet silent movie actor. Then, there is his repertoire of disinhibited stage movements – the microphone crouch, the unlicked-calf stagger, the bending spoon, the I am a Tree, the whole rubber man array of I-am-having-a-good-time-my-way that makes Stipe both endearing and liberating to watch.

It is a beautifully managed show – strong clear sound, inventive lighting, accomplished support musicians including Scott McCaughey on guitar and Bill Rieflin on drums. And those marvellous other-worldly REM songs – What’s the Frequency Kenneth ? with distressed guitar from Peter Buck and Everybody Hurts, sung like a keening lullaby by Stipe (whose voice generally seems to have dipped half an octave). The encores are singalongs – everyone is pushing elephants up the stairs in The Great Beyond and, then, we are in lunar mode with Andy Kaufman, patron saint of the Crazy Astronauts. That great bridge – “if you believe they put a Man on the Moon” – with Stipe’s rising vocal, Mills’s sweetening harmony and Peter Buck’s Byrdsong guitar, reminds us that REM has spent twenty five years getting us to look at the stars and they are still succeeding.

“The Man on the Moon”
The Adelaide Review, No 266, April 15, 2005, p.21

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment