The first time I saw REM in concert was at the Glastonbury Festival back in 1999. The air was thick with alcohol, exhilaration and a cornucopia of illegal intoxicants.
The crush of people edging purposefully towards the stage left no option but to go with the flow, but God help you if you suffered from claustrophobia.
I remember being right in the thick of it when Michael Stipe’s voice sliced through the mayhem, providing a grounding message to the masses that went something along the lines of “This is June 1999, 11pm, we are REM—you are right here, right now.” And that was about as much as he said that English summer evening, dedicating the rest of the time on stage to REM’s predictably impressive and professional line-up.
Stipes, with blue-grease mask and slick black suit, was a lot more chatty when he appeared on stage at the Coca-Cola Dome in Johannesburg on Thursday night, but it took the overwhelmingly white audience a good while to go with the flow. I found myself wedged between a burly bokkie bristling for a fight and some uptight blondies, with all the hostility of folk stuck in a traffic jam.
The music, however, was able to soothe the most jagged of souls and the atmosphere got more gentle the further one fled from the periphery of the golden circle. (Although reports from people who were within the esteemed circle were all favourable.) People at the back of the crowd were definitely having a lot more fun, probably because you could actually catch the odd glimpse of the stage from this vantage point and not just glare into the back of people’s heads or settle for staring up at the big screen — something that is more akin to watching MTV than a live performance. As someone commented, it would have helped if the stage was about a metre higher.
The performance itself could not be faulted. Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck managed to strike the right cord between “golden oldies”—such as Everybody Hurts, Orange Crush and Stand—and newer songs—such as Boy in the Well and Leaving New York from their latest album, Around the Sun. The politically charged I Wanted to Be Wrong spoke of general disillusionment with the United States under President George Bush and was favourably received.
In terms of value for money, patrons certainly got what they paid for—the hits just went on and on and on, with the lighting system adding real gloss to the presentation. Orange Crush was complemented with orange lighting and I Wanted to Be Wrong with the colours of the US flag—all emanating from cylindrical tubes suspended from the ceiling.
By the time the band closed with Man on the Moon, even the most uppity in the audience were loose in their skins, filled to the brim with feel-good endorphines.