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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Luca Chichizola
Isozaki Olympic Arena, Torino, Italy, September 27th 2008
As the fellow Maniacs probably have understood, when it comes to travelling I am quite a lazy person. I like to see places, but I don’t like spending hours on a plane, train or car… especially if I have to travel alone. So when some friend tells me that he travelled 500 Kms for attending to a concert in some distant place, I don’t feel much envy for him: in his place, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the show after such a long trip. remtorino
One notable exception was my 2006 Depeche Mode concert in Manchester, but that’s another story… and after all, it was Depeche Mode (sorry, Serge!). So when after many years one of the big names of rock comes to play in my hometown… no, wait, not only in my hometown, but right across the street from my house, well… missing the occasion would have been a crime.
There’s been a time when I used to hate R.E.M. (when they were constantly overexposed on MTV) thinking they were boring and overrated, and there’s been a time when I suddenly found myself loving them and listing them as one of my favourite bands. Now I am no longer exactly a fan like I used to, but I still like their music: their early “indie” albums from the ‘80s still have a unique charm, and their early-mid ‘90s ones are great classics of my generation. Sure, after drummer Bill Berry chose to leave the band in 1995 some spark was lost: what followed were a melancholy and experimentally minimalist (but also a bit boring) album, an enjoyable but overproduced and slightly stale one, and a complete misfire (“Around the sun”, a yawner of epic proportions).
When all hopes were lost, R.E.M. surprised everyone this spring with the release of “Accelerate”, which sounded like the band had travelled 25 years back in time to recover their post-punk/garage/indie rock band origins. Eleven extremely short songs, mostly fast-paced and tight, raw and energetic. The critics raved and welcomed this new burst of energy from the “old timers”, sometimes even hinting that this was one of their best albums ever. In my opinion, it was a bit of an exaggeration: “Accelerate” sounds good and invigorating, but it’s little more than a rehash of the classic R.E.M. style. A competent rehash, written and played with unexpected enthusiasm, but not a masterpiece like “Automatic for the people”, “New adventures in Hi-Fi”, their debut “Murmur” or the underrated “Fables of the reconstruction”. Accelerate REM
As expected, this concert would feature many songs from “Accelerate”, but what really attracted me was that in all previous dates of the tour R.E.M. had played lots of songs from the old albums (including some that they had almost never played live in the past decade or even longer) spanning their complete career from 1981 to 2008. Ok, I was sold: tickets, please!
After a quick pizza (onions and gorgonzola for me!) at home with my friends Umberto and Manuela, we reached the PalaIsozaki: it’s the biggest covered sports arena in Italy, and it was built for the 2006 Winter Olympics. As such, it’s a very modern venue: a shame that only few concerts took place here so far (the only international names up to yesterday were Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Ennio Morricone), simply because the organizers usually choose Milan for this kind of events. Anyway, we took our seats and waited for the support band (We are the scientists, an indie group I knew nothing of) to finish their show. The audience seemed kind of civilized, compared to other rock shows I have seen: many middle aged couples, quite a bit of grey hair, some elegant and pretty young girls. After all, R.E.M. are popular, but their appeal seems to strike a chord mostly in free-thinking liberals, well-educated and generally “quiet” people (no, not exactly “nerds”, although there sure was quite a bunch of them). No traces of long haired bikers, or of funny faces like the straight-out-of-the-Addams-family goths I had in front of me at the Depeche Mode concert I mentioned above. Good, a nice relaxing evening, then… but also some sort of a (visually) boring audience.
Anyway, the concert starts on time at 21:05, immediately revving up at full speed: the band is hot and lively, performing with the usual great enthusiasm. The result is that the first song (“Living well is the best revenge”, from their last album) kicks some serious ass, as do the following ones: an old favourite like “Begin the begin”, that great electric rocker called “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” and the equally loud and gritty “I took your name”. Wow, the age of R.E.M. ranges from 48 (singer Michael Stipe) to 52 (guitarist Peter Buck), but they still can pack a punch! The music is vibrant and youthful as ever, and Stipe (dressed very elegantly in a coat and tie) dances around the stage with his unmistakeable jerky and disjointed but graceful movements. No time is wasted in talk except for a “Grazie!” at the end of every song, and then the train keeps rolling at full speed. Even slower songs like “The great beyond” are played in a slightly faster and more dynamic version than in the albums, and the audience soon warms up. Maybe the political references to the incoming American elections (Stipe is a passionate democrat) are wasted for an Italian audience, but it’s very nice nonetheless to hear a live performance of old vitriolic classics like “Ignoreland” and “Exhuming McCarthy”.
And the show goes on, at a frantic pace: only the choice of the very minor and little-known “Animal” seems completely out of place, while it’s a great pleasure to hear old gems like “Driver 8”… and even a little throwaway song like the recent “I’m gonna DJ” becomes a thumping and thunderous arena rocker when played live. At the middle of the show, while Peter Buck keeps being his usual impassible self and Mike Mills just smiles, Stipe starts getting a bit talkative: he chats with the audience, recalls funny anecdotes of the last time he came in Torino as a tourist, jokes on how tired the band is after such a tour and how coming to Italy has a nice relaxing effect on them (maybe thanks to the food and wine?). And then they start playing again with the same passion… “She just wants to be” ends with some very energetic electric guitar soloing, much better than in the studio version, and “The one I love” sets the audience on fire singing along with Stipe during the chorus. Not only that, but the members of the Italian fanclub start waving sheets of paper with the silhouette of a naked woman… a clear homage to Peter’s Rickenbacker 360 guitar that was recently stolen (and then luckily “found” again) after a concert in Helsinki. A very loved guitar, as Buck started playing it in 1982 on their debut album and never replaced it: very fitting that the homage from the audience was staged during “The one I love”!!! REM
After sixteen songs, the pace slows down and becomes meditative: first with “Until the day is done”, and then with a touching acoustic version of Kurt Cobain’s homage “Let me in” with all the band gathered around the piano: so much better and more intimate than the distorted and buzzing album version! After this lovely moment, it’s time to rock back again with four more songs: as predictable, the highlight is the final one, a rousing version of the anti-military “Orange crush”, with the audience clapping thunderously in pace with the marching rhythm.
The band then leaves the stage without further notice, but on the projection screens a sheet of paper appears and a hand scribbles “Encores?”, at which of course the audience reacts with ominous screaming, clapping and stomping of the feet. And so here they come back on stage, to perform their recent single “Supernatural superserious” and then some of their all-time favourites: “Losing my religion”, a superbly fast and dynamic version of “Walk unafraid”, the unmissable arena rocker “It’s the end of the world (and I feel fine)” and of course the usual lively rendition of “Man on the moon”. What a great way to end a concert: they had never really lost steam for 27 songs in approximately two hours, but the encores were really a treat!
Overall the concert was very satisfactory: sure, the acoustics of these sports arenas are never top notch and Michael Stipe’s voice sounded a bit distant during the louder songs, and I personally feel that the arrangements would have been more effective and clean if Buck had been the only guitar player, without the backing from an additional musician. Stipe did his best to make the show involving: perhaps his stage presence is not as commanding as some other lead singers, but no reason to complain. REM
The choice of songs was interesting: apart from the handful of landmark classics and from the cuts from the new album, the setlist was accurately compiled to include some almost forgotten gems. Not the usual “best of” singles to please the casual fans: on the other hand, a wide array of great songs which only the TRUE fans love (and as a matter of fact often love even MORE than the hit singles). Personally I would have loved to hear some stuff from their first two albums, maybe even “Gardening at night”, or some more songs from “New adventures in Hi-Fi” because they are perfect live material due to their raw edge… but, again, complaining about such an extensive and at times unexpected setlist would be unfair.
Good job Michael, Mike and Peter… and see you (hopefully) soon in Torino again! - Luca Chichizola

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