London W1 Improv Theatre

Yet another low-key secret show for REM in London; this time, an MTV special...

[a]Michael Stipe[/a]’s favourite Australian city is Brisbane. He’s not a sporty kind of guy. And [a]REM[/a] the band he fronts whose relationship to touring is fickle at best, have had a long, tiring week.

These are just some of the bits of information thrown up by tonight’s peculiar collision between a fan club gig, a TV recording and a Q&A session – an event designed to remind us that [a]REM[/a] didn’t break up when drummer Bill Berry left, but made a strange, lovely album instead.

The thing is, ‘Up’ has been selling below expectations, so no wonder [a]REM[/a] seem a little subdued this evening. Matters aren’t helped by tonight’s kickoff running over an hour late. Add to this the surreality of TV production – no drinks or smoking in the venue; a floor manager who points out the exits like a flight attendant and exhorts us to jig about – and you have an almost palpable non-rock situation.

And then it just happens. The unstoppable force of some of the most memorable music of the 20th century unleashed in a confined space eclipses the cameras, the wait, the sour taste of stage management. Songs like ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’, even ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’, so imbued with the love of entire stadia, unfolding not six feet away. A Genuine Event, then – with added chat, flirting and easy comedy by [a]Michael Stipe[/a], the most likeable shaman ever to mediate between popkind and the spheres.

He waggles his hands like a snake charmer on ‘Lotus’, blue-green eye make-up glinting, otherworldly. He watches his own band – Buck and Mills supplemented by Beck drummer Joey Waronker, keyboard player Scott McCaughey and ex-Posie Ken Stringfellow – from the edge of the stage on the magnificent wind-down that is ‘Country Feedback’, an onlooker at his own party. He says he’s so beat he doesn’t want to talk and then prattles on charmingly when the cameras stop rolling. “COME OOOON!” he hollers, veins bulging, transformed for a moment into a Fury on ‘Man On The Moon’, all weariness fallen from his wiry frame as he swivels, hollers and croons heavenwards.

There are occasional moments where gravity pulls: a clunky ‘Sad Professor’ is wisely prefaced by Stipe‘s warning that, “We haven’t done this song in months.” ‘At My Most Beautiful’ happens twice, its jingling bells and dreamy ‘doot-doot-doo’s deemed wanting the first time round. Yet for nearly two hours – with time added on in apology for our wait in the rain – all context falls away, and [a]REM[/a] are merely that wondrous but almost banal thing: truly great.

“We’re happy to be here,” Michael purrs graciously, and then pauses, searching for the right words. “Because this is what we do,” he concludes happily. There could never be a better reason.