The esplanade at Stirling Castle is a pretty homely little place for a major concert. I couldn't believe we were so near the stage, for an R.E.M. show. We arrived pretty late on, but we still got down within 10 or 15 metres of the stage. Okay, I'll start going through this chronologically, and see if some things pop into my mind as I eviscerate my memories of the show.
I went to see this night with my sister Suzanne and our friend Susan. Before they came on, Suzanne and I had a bet about which song they would play first. She said Hope, and I guessed Lotus would be a good bet (note: I deliberately did not look at previous setlists of the Up tour, before going to the show). When they came on and played Lotus, I was jumping around shouting "Aaaaaah!!! You owe me a pound!!!" like a frenzied dervish.
Stipe was also a frenzied dervish. That man scudded along the horizon like a rabbit with a hungry fox after it. The Wake-Up Bomb was like lightning, surely the fastest version you'll ever hear - everyone was flipping out. I laughed when he sang "Pond Scum!!!" Before Fall On Me, Michael said his usual "This song is older than the birth of mankind" introduction. The sound was poor - too much bass and drum, drowning out the subtleties. Suspicion was even worse - that's a keyboard song, but Peter's guitar ruined it. They played it like a straight rock track.
Michael then started to talk between songs some more. He responded to some crowd noise by saying "Yeah, buddy, I was there from the beginning as well" - referencing the fact that 99% of R.E.M. fans hadn't heard of them until their 6th or 7th album (including me, yeah) and the ensuing internet debate between the snobs and wanabees and oldies and newbies ----- but this is not the time or place to reopen that discussion. He casually started singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (the English song now used as a rugby chant - sorry for those who already knew that) and everyone started booing, and spontaneously sang the first verse of Flower Of Scotland - it was bloody hilarious. Incredibly, the other 3 people I know who saw the gig all thought Stipe was NOT aware that "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" is the ultimate song to make the Scots angry. Like, it was just a coincidence?!? Cop an attitude -- I know squirrelies didn't chew the wire ------
He also joked about singing too flat, and instigated a show of hands to decide whether he was singing off-pitch (the nays had it). Then he responded to the crowd's shouts with "Oh, you say MIKE is out of tune! Mike - it was him, he said it, there!" And Mike was like, "Yeah, I see him, I'll deal with him later!" Daysleeper had much better sound - Peter's acoustic was to the fore, and Mike added electric piano harmonies not on the record.
And then it happened. They played one of my all-time favourite R.E.M. songs, a song I covered when I was in a band, and which I got Suzanne into and which we are always singing and quoting. The song is Driver 8, from my favourite R.E.M. album, Fables of the Reconstruction. It bloody made me cry! I am a 27-year-old man, but I have to admit it, I was so overcome, I shed a tear. That song reaches some mystical folky place which their other songs just didn't seem to touch.
Then Michael paused. You got the impression that some awkward, difficult-to-play-live song was coming next. "We're going to play a song now, which is Peter's favourite song. And I also enjoy singing it." Suzanne and I looked at other in shock when they started playing Sweetness Follows. I almost cried again - that song is so special, really precious. Peter used the loud guitar just about right - so hard to do subtly without ruining it, but although loud, it did translate pretty well. Now, my memory of the song order goes haywire. Forgive me for that.Stipe said "Here's one for ya" before The One I Love. They switched all the bright yellow stage lights on for this one. What I found bizarre, was people having such a deliriously happy time, bouncing around to songs which are so sombre and pessimistic. The same happened during Losing My Religion. Such an odd moment, but fascinating.
The new song (with the chorus that starts about pushing an elephant up the stairs) was okay - grindy verse, a bit like Undertow, then a more melodic, uplifting chorus. Pretty full-on guitar, so there was no room to pick out any subtleties, but I did notice Mike bending the neck of his bass, or tapping the back of it to get a rumbling sound, or doing a string slide or some such manoeuver.
Peter had his e-bow out for E-bow The Letter and Walk Unafraid. Michael said "This is MY favourite song" before e-bow the letter, and I was actually expecting Electrolyte. The former was a bit drum & bassy, too rocky and loud, but the latter was one of their best live performances - Michael adds a quiet chorus at the very start, with almost no instruments, rather like "The One I Love" from the Tourfilm video. You really notice the sparing bass pulses, live - just like Airbag by Radiohead. Brilliant use of space and quiet in that one. I shouted "Stipe For President!" after one song, around this point, and he smiled briefly. A white cap also got thrown on stage; he then asked for someone's stripey teapot hat, and when they thrrew it up he wore it for a moment. Then he went: "Oh, no, you ain't getting it back - this is mine now! You can have this crappy Nike cap!"
I was amazed they played How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us - no ennio whistle or bazouki in evidence. For the last few patterns, Stipe did a sort of shaky-kneed middle eastern dance. Bizarre - such an intellectual song about uranium and lime mining and whatever, turned into a cool groove. Then he said "This is Mike's favourite song - and it also lets him show that he can actually sing!" No, it wasn't Near Wild Heaven or Texarkana, but Pretty Persuasion from Reckoning. I went wild - but the audience (this is down the front) were like, er, what's this??? and all just stood there. Except one girl who was mouthing the words (whatever they are). Okay, I am an indie snob after all! I was just ecstatic they played one from Reckoning, one off Fables and two off Life's Rich Pageant. (I also shouted for Wall Of Death, for what it's worth.)
Star 69 is THE song, for Suzanne and me - we're always going around saying "I know squirrelys didn't chew the wire" when someone's plot is transparent and "You don't have to take the bar exam to see [insert obvious statement here]". We were so happy when those lines got sung; the whole concert, we sang our favourite lines in each others' faces. It was such a laugh. Michael tried an acoustic guitar/vocal snippet of Falls To Climb on his own - Suzy thought it was pants, but I got a kick out it. He couldn't play A minor to save his granny. He extended it into a random chord/oohhs and aahs thing for a bit. Then - another song I never thought they'd play - Mike on acoustic for the harpsichord part of Why Not Smile, with only him and Michael on stage. Total silence for once - just like Smashing Pumpkins doing Mayonaise with no distortion in '96. Ahhhh. One of the songs that surprised me most was Cuyahoga. No crowd reaction, except 3 guys in a huddle, jumping around like crazy. Well, I love that song too! Again, thinking of the river set alight by the pollution, and even knowing where the damn river is, made it more rewrading to listen to.
I must say one thing, which struck me during the whole show. I am now very grateful for all the lyrics and explanations of R.E.M. songs on the internet. To listen to Man On The Moon and understand the references, was gratifying. Idem for What's The Frequency, Kenneth? and Cuyahoga. To be swept up by the band and audience, all cavorting around in a fiendish cacophony of lights and rock n roll; yet at the same time be aware of words such as "Richard said withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy" is a frightening dichotomy. Like Stipe is mocking the audience with his dance moves, hamming it up because anyway most of them won't understand the obscurities in those lyrics he's rendered so incomprehensible in the first place. Every time he came out with one of those lines, I felt myself overtaken by the adrenalin of the event, yet at the same time aware that what we were dancing to was ridiculously intellectual, and I kept laughing like a hyena at the craziness of it. YOU SAID THAT IRONY WAS THE SHACKLES OF YOUTH.
Back to the 1999 concert setlists