“I don’t want to be Iggy Pop,” barks Michael Stipe on ‘I took your name’, the song that opens the first South African concert of R.E.M.’s world tour.
But – even decked out in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie – he’s not fooling anybody.
Behind him, the band grinds relentlessly on, all wailing guitars and pummelled drums, giving a potent song the powerhouse treatment it deserves.
The backdrop springs to life – a sinister wall of static seemingly created by mirrors and flickering lights – but it’s Stipe who stamps his authority on the stage.
His eyes covered with a tar painted mask that’s Zorro meets The Incredibles, the wiry lead singer is like a lightning rod, demanding attention with showmanship so unexpected from a man who has long cultivated the image of the intellectual poet.
Before long he’s generating crowd hysteria with the Stipe dance – a seizure crossed with a sideways version of the moonwalk – or just by raising his arms, crucifixion style.
But Stipe works hard to retain his compelling presence – he’s a disciplined performer who delivers each song with the passion, energy or tenderness it needs. And he’s not one to cop out by getting the crowd to sing for him.
Not that he could stop the fans from providing a massive wall of backing vocals during favourites like ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ – guitarist Peter Buck’s closing mandolin solo completely drowned out by the giddy crowd.
The crowd isn’t always so pliable however, and one senses they were thrown by a setlist that kicked off with less familiar tunes like ‘I took your name’ and ‘Departure’ (both monsters that should have had the show off to a storming start) and new tracks ‘Outsiders’ and ‘High Speed Train’. A brave move for a country like South Africa where punters notoriously demand the big hits – and nothing more.
But the band maintains their musical intensity, and so impressive is their performance that they breathe life and vigour into new songs that suffered from lacklustre production on the ‘Around the Sun’ album.
Aided by impeccable live sound mixing, the shuffling ‘Electron Blue’ rightfully sounds like it is Stipe’s favourite song from the new collection, while ‘Leaving New York’ is even more delicately beautiful than on the record.
Yet it’s the anti-Bush double whammy of ‘Wanted to Be Wrong’ and ‘Final Straw; that stand out as the highlights of the new offerings. Introduced by Stipe apologising for Dubya (a surefire way for an American band to win over an international audience), the band launch into the two slow-burning protest songs as the thin, fluorescent lights behind them turn red, white and blue.
It’s heavily political, yet the mood of the show doesn’t suffer as the band launches into back-to-back singalongs of ‘Imitation of Life’ and ‘One I Love’.
It’s an approach they follow throughout the show, matching massive hits like ‘Man on the Moon’ (the stuff of goosebumps) and ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth’ with obscure nuggets from their back catalogue (‘Walk Unafraid’, ‘Exhuming McCarthy’). And one new piledriver, ‘I’m Gonna DJ’, that kicks serious ass.
Just like ‘Orange Crush’ – complete with Stipe singing into a megaphone as the dozens of light tubes hanging behind him take on an orange glow. These lighting effects change continually, sometimes even resembling an electrical storm, to reflect the particular song’s mood – a strategy used to similarly spectacular effect on the screen above the action.
Combining live on-stage footage with music videos, crowd shots, the occasional text phrase and static, it’s more a work of art than a big screen for fans who can’t see what’s happening on stage.
Nevertheless, it highlights the genuine smiles that cross Stipe’s face from time to time, the mercurial performer clearly moved by the crowd’s responses – so much so that on the night’s hand-written set list (see it on the band’s website) he’s scrawled “Amazing show”.
Yes, Michael it was. Thank you.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.