“I rock? Is that what you said?” Michael Stipe asked a fan who’d been shouting praise at the R.E.M. frontman. “Get a life.” A few seconds later, Stipe finished the thought: “I think I rock, too.”| The Athens, Ga., quartet then launched into the mandolin-laced “Losing My Religion,” one of the few songs that rocked all night, and one of the few times the London crowd removed that deer-in-the-headlights look from their faces.
So much has happened since R.E.M. last toured: primarily, drummer Bill Berry left the band, and the group stopped selling albums. Well, not stopped, but R.E.M. certainly wasn’t tapping the keg of hits (“Stand,” “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts”) that previously had made them automatic for the platinum. The group’s evolution into experimental balladry and ethereal instrumentation was to blame, and though it hasn’t maimed ticket sales on their new Up tour, it’s created the wrong vibe for a big room.
The melancholy beauty of “New Test Leper” and Mike Mills’ cozy piano flourishes on “Electrolite” were orchestrated to perfection, as were the delicate, Beach Boys-esque “At My Most Beautiful” and dreamy “Find the River,” but these songs ached for the environment of an intimate grotto, where ticket prices reach Stones-ian proportions.
From the outset, the pacing was off. From generic rockers like “Lotus” and “Crush With Eyeliner” to the flaccid, vaguely lounge-y “Suspicion” and banal and broodish “The Apologist,” R.E.M. weren’t able to hit legitimate arena-rock stride until eight songs in when they dropped the punishing “Wake-Up Bomb.”
The dubious beginning would further beg the question, “What’s the frequency, London?” Vintage nuggets like “Pilgrimage” and “Driver 8,” not played live for a decade, proved ageless and a welcome respite from Up ennui, but seemed lost on the ambivalent crowd. Better received were the jangly “Gardening at Night” (from 1982’s Chronic Town EP) and the anthemic “Life and How to Live It” (from 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction), both keptpristine in presentation.
Always the showman, Stipe’s pixie-like elasticity had him shakin’ and shimmyin’ throughout, and striking his now legendary Elvis poses during the riveting “Man on the Moon.” Other encore offerings, like the frenetic “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and rambling rocker “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (with Stipe belting out bassist Mike Mills’ “It’s time I had some time alone” during the reprise) finally had R.E.M. taking control of the elements, motivating because the tempo was right, and the sentiment was earnest.