Sunday, April 19, 2015

Concert Memories: R.E.M. at Earls Court Arena, London, England June 22, 1999

My very faded ticket stub
 
R.E.M. - Earls Court Arena, London, England June 22, 1999

R.E.M. are a favorite band of mine and for most of the 1990s, they were one of my big obsessions. I managed to see them three times, all in 1999. The first time was also one of the most memorable concerts I've ever been to because it was the first and only concert (so far) that I've seen outside of the country.  In the summer of 1999 I was 19 years old and halfway through college, playing in a band with my brother and our childhood friend Theo, and just starting to really go see lots of concerts on my own.  That spring my parents planned a trip to take me and my siblings back to London, where we hadn't been since 1993. My mum noticed that R.E.M. were supposed to be playing two nights at Earls Court when we'd be there...in fact, the first night was the very day we were arriving! She suggested I order some tickets, so I promptly ordered three tickets: one for me, one for my brother, and one for a mutual friend of ours whose family was also traveling to London with us. I had decided to have the tickets mailed to our house since it was still roughly six weeks until we flew over; it was a decision I would end up regretting as it caused me a lot of stress later on!

As a bit of backgrounf on how I got into them, I'd been a massive R.E.M. fan for years, dating back to when I first heard the big singles from their Document album in 1987 ("The One I Love," "It's the End of the World As We Know It.").  I used to see those videos on MTV, too, and I know I'm dating myself by recalling a time when MTV and music videos were a huge part of a band's promotional strategy!  When Green came out in late 1988 and their popularity exploded, so too did my fandom even though I was only 9 years old at the time.  The songs and videos were everywhere and from then on, they have been one of my favorite bands.  By the time 1999 rolled around they were minus Bill Berry but had been the biggest American rock band on the planet for a decade and I just had to see them. As I mentioned above, this was to be the first time out of three that I saw them on this tour although at the time I didn't know that...

As the day of our departure drew nearer I still hadn't gotten the tickets in the mail, so I called up Earls Court and asked if I could switch the tickets to will-call. They were happy to do this, which was a relief. Our flight left in early evening from Boston and, accounting for the time change, arrived in London around 6am local time. Typically for these trips across the pond the plan is usually to stay awake throughout the day and then go to bed in the early evening in order to get a good night's sleep and get your body acclimated to the time difference. However, my brother and I and our friend Matt couldn't do this since we were going to see R.E.M.!  We checked into the hotel, wandered around the city, and had our dinner. When the rest of our families were going to bed, however, we hopped on the Underground and took the tube to Earls Court. I have to admit that it was a real thrill when we walked around the corner and saw the famous art-deco facade; the venue is legendary in rock music circles for all of the huge concerts that have been played there over the years, from the Rolling Stones, Genesis, and Pink Floyd to David Bowie, Oasis, and my personal favorites, Led Zeppelin.  The fact that I was going to be seeing a show in the same arena that Led Zeppelin played their incredible five-night stand of shows over a week in May 1975 was a real thrill for this rock-obsessed 19 year old. However, everything I had previously read about the place was also true...it was huge, cavernous, and the acoustics were atrocious for concerts!

We went into the lobby and made our way to the will-call window, where I told the girl my name so she could find the tickets. We stood there chatting and I was feeling relieved that everything had gone smoothly when she came back and told me there were no tickets under that name. I was absolutely freaked out and told her the situation: that I had ordered them weeks ago, they hadn't arrived before we were going to leave, I'd called the ticket office to have them switched to will call...she went to go get her manager. As I stood there wondering if we were going to be able to see the show, the manager came back with a big smile on his face and an envelope with my name on it that contained the three tickets! Phew!  It turned out that after I had called they had pulled our tickets out from the batch that were to be mailed out, but they hadn't put it into the will-call batch. It had been sitting on his desk with a several other ticket envelopes that had also been switched from mail to will-call.  In any event, we had our tickets and could now get in to see R.E.M.!

Upon entering the arena, I was surprised at what I saw: it seemed almost like a huge hangar inside, which makes sense in retrospect as Earls Court was first and foremost designed to be an indoor exhibition center.  There was a huge general admission area in front of the stage and ringing it were barriers behind which the assigned seating was...the whole arrangement was a horseshoe shape around the larger GA area. We were right at the front of an assigned seating section a bit to the right of center stage.  As we sat there waiting for the opening act to come onstage, jet lag began to kick in and the three of us took turns trying to keep each other awake.

Wilco opened the concert and while they are a band I had heard of, I don't remember anything of their set. I know that they had and continue to have a devoted following but I've never been a fan and I honestly don't remember much about them beyond thinking they were okay. After they finished and the stage was set up for the headliners, the lights went out and everyone rose as R.E.M. hit the stage.  "Airportman" played over the PA as the band took the stage and the crowd started cheering wildly.  As you can see below, their set was a great cross-section of material from their entire career, including going all the way back to their debut album Murmur with a personal favorite of mine, "Pilgrimage." The set was understandably heavy on material from their latest album Up, but what struck me was how much stronger the new material sounded live even though I was and still am a fan of the album.  There was also a new, unreleased song ("The Great Beyond") which I thought was great and couldn't wait to get when they finally released it.  During the encore section, Michael came onstage with a big smile and asked us to bear with him while he did something he'd never done before: he strummed an acoustic guitar and sang "I'm Not Over You" solo, which was pretty neat.  They also played "Gardening at Night" for the first time since 1986 which was a treat!

There were only two downsides to the entire experience: first, the sound in Earls Court really was atrocious. Loud, echoey, booming...the sound mix, if you can call it that, was appalling. It wasn't surprising and it was no fault of the soundman, but it was pretty disappointing nonetheless.  Secondly, there the three of us were sitting in a huge arena at a loud rock concert and we were struggling to stay awake! I remember that about halfway through the concert, I sat back down in my seat because I was too tired to stand and the entire time I was sitting I had to fight very hard to stay awake. At one point I did doze off sitting upright in my seat before I snapped awake and realized I was sleeping through one of my favorite bands playing right in front of me!  When we got back to the hotel, my body hurt so much from fatigue that I literally fell into bed fully clothed and slept in late the following morning.  It was a fun concert although the terrible sound meant it was the least favorite R.E.M. concert that I saw that year. Still, I had finally seen them live and it was in London, which was (and still is!) pretty damn cool. The next two times I saw them would be much better...and I'll write those up at a later time.

Below is the great set list they played that night. I have a recording of the show somewhere in a box in my basement, along with the ticket stub.  If and when I find the stub, I will add a picture of it to this post. I actually got the recording of this show from a guy I used to trade R.E.M. tapes with back in the late 1990s whom I actually met later on that year, but that's a story for another post...

Set List:

Airportman
Lotus
Crush With Eyeliner
Suspicion
New Test Leper
The Apologist
Pilgrimage
Daysleeper
The Wake-Up Bomb
Electrolite
Driver 8
Sweetness Follows
At My Most Beautiful
Losing My Religion
The Great Beyond
Find the River
Pop Song 89
Life and How to Live It
Walk Unafraid
Finest Worksong
Man on the Moon

Encore:
I'm Not Over You
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
Tongue
Gardening at Night 
It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like a memorable concert all things considered. Jet lag can be a bear. I was a fan of the band going back to Murmur. The whole punk/new wave thing was going on and along with the B-52's, and some other bands, Athens seemed like a pretty happening town.

    My favorite period for them was early on thru their middle period. After they lost their drummer they seemed to have lost something a bit, though I still followed them and they had many radio/MTV hits. I've never seen them live although caught a few of their taped concert films. They were one of those bands that just seemed to have meshed pretty well, and also enjoyed being around each other.

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    1. I think they were pretty damn good after Bill Berry left apart from Around the Sun in 2004, which was such an awful album that I'd wished they split up at the time. They recovered nicely for their last two, though. But yeah, jet lag is brutal! Usually it's never bothered me going over there because I could go to sleep that first night but it didn't work out that way this time!

      Did you ever see them live?

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  2. Just on DVD live. :) I think with REM they were pretty fine overall, but got to be a little too same-y for me too. Now I know that can be levied at most rock bands and was addressed by Michael Stipe--ie. sure we sound same-y & we always will unless someone picks up a tuba and someone else a harpsichord, so we can't help that to a degree. Which I understand, but their songwriting weakened a bit or something, plus I was looking for something more than a quicky pop song. Probably the latter. My taste was changing and continues to do so.

    Somewhere in the 90's I felt this sort of disposable thrust of pop music--around the time grunge was happening. Some of the grunge movement was ok, but for me it just came off as retreaded hard rock which had been done for years, but dressed in flannel. :)

    A friend was making me mixed tapes of a lot of new stuff he was listening too and giving them to me like Nirvana, Chili Peppers, rap, Pixies, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, etc. Some I liked and some didn't, and either way I appreciate his efforts. But it seemed like a large portion of it wore off after about three to four weeks ( and some didn't interest me at all ie. Chili Peppers, hip hop, rap) and I'd file it away and was ready for another pop fix (sort of).

    I started listening to classical around that time too, and it took me a much longer time to wrap my head around it. That was something that pop/rock was lacking. Some of the bands I still enjoyed that are more progressive still have a longevity to them: Genesis, King Crimson, Zappa, Soft Machine, Yes, Pink Floyd, etc. I don't know if they are something that remains that way to some extent because I grew up with them or because they actually have a lasting, more complex sound, etc. But I still discover bands ever so often that do that as well whether new or older bands: Hatfield and the North, Caravan, Van Der Graaf Generator, The Flower Kings, Radiohead, etc.

    I sort of lost my point I was making, but I think what I'm trying to say is I lost interest in REM, and I'm not one where I have to have every album by a band and I'm always looking for something new to inspire or excite me, and I know too I can't buy everything...

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    1. I'll agree they ran out of steam a bit. My favorite period is from the beginning up to and including Automatic From the People in 1992/93. After that, I still love their music (I *am* the type of person that has to have every album by a band :-) ) but they definitely lost some steam and I think held on a bit too long, although their final two albums were great. Thankfully, they knew when to call it a day and did so with dignity which is not something most bands can say.

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