REM : London Carling Hammersmith Apollo/Sheffield Hallam FM Arena

REM : London Carling Hammersmith Apollo/Sheffield Hallam FM Arena

It's antibiotics and acoustic guiars all round...

The last time [a]REM[/a] toured in 2003, they were plugging an about-to-be-released ‘Best Of’ compilation, which went on to sell shed-loads. Now things are somewhat different. Although new album ‘Around The Sun’ topped the UK charts, it exited the Top 40 fairly quickly after receiving by far the worst reviews of the group’s career. What with old rivals U2 revitalised and rightly able to claim the prize of biggest band in the world again, at least things can’t really get any worse for [a]REM[/a] right now. Right?

Not during their London ‘club’ show at any rate. As they launch into ‘Monster’’s Stooges-aping ‘I Took Your Name’, only a fool would write [a]REM[/a] off just yet. Michael Stipe, clad in skinny suit and mad Zorro make-up, proves he is still one of the most engaging frontmen around, zipping across the stage, striking poses and generally being a cool bastard. With a vast back catalogue to revisit, some old gems are unearthed, so as well as all the durable anthems (‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Everybody Hurts’) the hardcore following are treated to the likes of venerable jangler ‘Seven Chinese Brothers’ from 1984’s ‘Reckoning’ and the raw immediacy of ‘Departure’ from 1996’s under-rated ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’. But it’s not until the following Monday that the London fans realise just how lucky they really are.

If Saturday saw Michael Stipe take to the stage in Hammersmith resembling an anorexic uncle of ’60s comic book hero The Green Lantern, tonight he looks more like the Grim Reaper, striding onstage 15 minutes early with a face pale and some sorry news for a blizzard-beaten Sheffield. “The flu that’s been going round has gotten Mike Mills,” he mutters, “so we can’t play. He feels like the Grinch who stole Christmas, but he’s on his way to hospital right now so keep him in your prayers tonight.” So, with the house-lights up throughout and the gig instantly re-scheduled for June (the last time [a]REM[/a] had to cancel a gig was nine years ago, following Bill Berry’s mid-tour brain damage – no Pete Dohertys these), a Mills-free [a]REM[/a] perform four acoustic numbers beneath a forest of glowing blue saline drips. ‘The One I Love’: understated, ghostly, Stipe’s head bowed in the direction of casualty. ‘Leaving New York’: “never performed in this form before” and all the more touching for the stripped-down sentiment. ‘I’ve Been High’: a haunting synth throb from ‘Reveal’, bereft of electronic heartbeat but sublime nonetheless. And ‘Losing My Religion’: Peter Buck’s mandolin getting the biggest cheer of the evening.

Subtle, shiversome and conducted with deft professionalism, it’s a welcome salve after 5,000 dinner parties across Yorkshire have been cancelled for the night (indeed, the National Union Of Babysitters is threatening to strike over loss of overtime). Just one minor quibble. Four songs? It’s not like [a]REM[/a]’s massive back catalogue is exactly un-acoustic. With ten minutes’ warning most people could probably knock together the rudimentary chords to ‘Man On The Moon’. But enough nit-picking: the Grinch stole Christmas and Christmas forgave him. Roll on The Return Of The Green Lantern.

Mark Beaumont and Alan Woodhouse