SCARY 'MONSTERS' AND SUPER 'CREEPS'
R.E.M./Radiohead, Meadows Music Theatre, Hartford, Connecticut
EITHER I’ve just been appallingly unlucky, or R.E.M. really have embarked on some morbid crusade to play in all the world’s most dismal cities. Milton Keynes lost August, and this October…
Hartford is famous for being the capital of Connecticut, which is like being famous for being the star player for Hartlepool United. Hartford is a cemetery with streetlights. If you fired a Gatling gun down the main street at midnight on a Saturday you wouldn’t hit anybody; if you did, you’d be doing them a favour. Ruling out this option on the grounds of Connecticut’s enthusiasm for capital punishment, I instead asked a bartender where people go for fun. He looked at me, around his dimly lit establishment decorated by fading hockey pennants and populated by four lone, middle-aged men gawping morosely into their watery beer, and replied, “They come here, sir”.
All of which possibly goes some waytowards explaining why the Meadows complex is full to its 30,000 capacity half on hour before Radiohead start. The Meadows is a half-indoor, half-outdoor arena, like Wembley with a backyard. Entrance is through the ideological gauntlet of organisations R.E.M. have invited on tour with them, by and large common-sense agitators like Greenpeace, Rock The Vote, Handgun Control, and the National Coalition to Abolish The Death Penalty. There’s a couple of more nebulous names like People For The American Way and Common Cause, which fleetingly sound excitingly like rogue shotgun-wielding militias that have got under R.E.M.’s wire, but these also turn out to be cheerful liberals encouraging others to be cheerfully liberal. As long as it keeps them off the streets, I guess.
The audience dynamic displayed during Radiohead’s set is a neat illustration of this fine band’s continuing quandary. Everyone sits and applauds politely as they play the songs from “The Bends”. When the opening chords of “Creep” prowl from the speakers, everyone stands up and goes screaming fanmaniacal crazy until the song stops. Then everyone sits down again.
For all that, Radiohead are brilliant again tonight. Even upon the hill, where the visuals are reduced to five distant figures beneath an enormous video projection of Thom Yorke’s perpetually contorted face, Radiohead still seem to fill the space. Yorke’s voice is the central revelation, managing to convey at once the totalitarian authority of Bono’s stadium croon with an intense, intimate and visceral kick oddly reminiscent of Kristin Hersh. His deliveries of “Lucky”, “High And Dry” and the achingly gorgeous “Fake Plastic Trees” even tempt a few lighters skyward.
Their set, the last of their R.E.M. supports, ends with a scene of rich Tap-esque comedy. Having finished with a rousing version of “Nobody Does It Better”, dedicated to the headliners, Radiohead bolt for the wings, for fear of being on the receiving end of one of R.E.M.’s end-of-tour practical jokes (unseen by the crowd, Ed O’Brien has already spent most of the set being tormented by a remote-control car operated from the wings by Mike Mills). Just as the last one of them completes their flight, R.E.M. wander on stage with a tray of champagne glasses, the big softies, only to find that their intended drinking partners have legged it. After a few agonising, if hilarious, moments, Radiohead are recovered, and the R.E.M./Radiohead mutual admiration society drinks its own health.
When R.E.M. return to the stage, this time to a crowd screaming its readiness, I’ve got the best sect in the house, having been shepherded stageside by Colin out of the ‘Head. From here, “I Took Your Name”, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush With Eyeliner” all look fantastic, with everyone of Stipe’s ironic-but-not-ironic exaggerated rock hero poses cueing not-remotely ironic convulsions of ecstasy from the crowd I’m facing straight into. Unfortunately, it sounds bloody awful, as the speakers are facing in the opposite direction, so I retire to a more civilised vantage point out front behind the mixing desk.
This is not, saints and little fishes be praised, the disappointment of Milton Keynes, where R.E.M. had over-reached, under-achieved, and finally bared back to the beer tent. This, however, is how I always imagined seeing R.E.M. would be, a carnival of contradiction. I still can’t get on with the c1unky, c1od-hopping version of “Drive” they’re doing, and the inconsistent quality of some of the new material on offer suggests the next album could go one wayor the other, but tonight they spent two hours reminding me of why it’d be their catalogue I’d keep if it was all I had room for on the desert island.
The improved visuals help, dressing the stage in giant flowers or adding to the dizzy feel of the material from the still under-rated “Monster” with lurching fairground rides. It’s all still upstaged by Mills’ extraordinary suit (if anyone’s wondering what to get me for Christmas, usual address), and it’s not the dazzling multi-contextual overload provided by U2’s “Zoo TV” extravaganzas, but it’s thoughtful and insidiously effective.
“Losing My Religion”, arriving about halfway in, best illustrates the dichotomy at the heart of R.E.M.’s enormous and encouraging success. Everyone here, myself included, would tell you that they relate to this song fairly meaningfully. Nobody here, least of all me, has any idea what it’s about. Stipe’s genius for infusing patent gibberish with wrenching profundity has been equalled in rock’s canon only by Dylan, but genius it is. It’s no coincidence that the night’s other biggest crowd-pleaser is “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.
Conversely, and equally importantly, there’s the ones everyone understands but think could only be written about them. “Strange Currencies”, “Country Feedback”, “Everybody Hurts” can all take you as close as possible to an intimate epiphany in a field full of people you probably wouldn’t like all that much. Of the new material, “Wake Up Bomb” (which appears, at one point, to rhyme “Gin and tonic” with “supersonic”, and the ranting “Revolution” resemble the air-guitar grandeur of “Monster”. “Undertow” sounds undeniably like Radiohead (to whom Stipe dedicates at least half a dozen of tonight’s songs), while another, possibly called “Binky The Doorman” but I really hope not, errs on the shapeless side.
They end with “Begin The Begin”, the first song on their best album, thank Radiohead again, and take their leave. For R.E.M., a fair night’s work. For this listener, a slightly tested faith restored. For which, thanks.