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The War Against Intelligence

John Williamson's web stuff

Month

June 2005

U2 at Hampden

Perhaps U2’s greatest asset in their lengthy and successful career has been the ability to reinvent themselves in times of musical and directional crisis.

At the start of this decade, with a series of smaller (by their standards) shows, they appeared to be trying to reconnect with their early days and the passion of their fans.

Like the live shows around their other landmark albums, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, it worked, but their return to the world’s football stadiums appears to have come with another of their periodic regressions to type.

The show is big on spectacle, high on volume and plentiful in its often confusing messages and sloganeering, but ultimately it seems reliant on the past and almost afraid of the future.

Power wins out over subtlety, and the stage set and lighting effects are initially more diverting than many of the musical concoctions. Vertigo, Elevation and All Because of You � the best of their post-millennium output � are used effectively early, but each of these is big on show and low on real emotion.

The performance also seems staid: Bono is lively but remote, the others look coolly disinterested and it takes the frequent injection of “greatest hits” material to enliven the crowd. New Year’s Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday and With or Without You all succeed in this regard, even a reworked I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, though it is hardly the folk song Bono proclaims it to be.

Elsewhere, the messages are piled on thick and fast: Martin Luther King, Suu Kyi and, more surprisingly, Gordon Brown are the good guys.

It provides an interesting but claustrophobic setting for the music. U2 favour broad sweeps over attention to detail, and though it works up to a point, it may take another decade for their music to become vital again.

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REM

REM
Glasgow Green

If the sheer scale of the tent erected in the middle of Glasgow Green is testament to their enduring populist appeal, it takes only a few minutes, and a couple of songs (I Took Your Name and What’s The Frequency Kenneth) to impress that REM’s mainstream appeal has not been achieved at the expense of the unique characteristics that made them the best rock band of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Michael Stipe remains the focal point � face painted and wriggling his way out of a suit � but tellingly his band mates, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, both look healthier and more connected than on their previous, slothful, performance in Scotland. Though recent albums have offered less in the way of great songs, they select well and the likes of The Outsiders and Electron Blue would have held their own on better records than the ones on which they resided.

The intensity of the performance may also have dropped with age, but there are still significant moments of deviation from arena rock conventions. The lighting and screen projection are imaginative and artistic and the set is a well-balanced mixture of old and new, singles and album tracks.

This highlights both the many strengths and few weaknesses. REM peak when they are at their most agitated (Bad Day), ambiguous (Drive) and lyrically empathetic (Everybody Hurts).

By comparison, Leaving New York and High Speed Train seem laboured, but it is picking at holes when both Losing My Religion and The One I Love remain flawless specimens of pop songs. Reassuringly, REM’s music is as ill-fitting and inspiring in middle age as it was at the time of Radio Free Europe.

Four Tet

Four Tet
Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh

The subterranean nightclub venue serves mainly to highlight the schizophrenic nature of both the music Kieran Hebden produces as Four Tet, and the audience that appears most responsive to it.

On the one hand, hardened clubbers gathered at the front of the stage do their best to dance to his fractured beats and rhythms. On the other are bedroom geeks, angling for the best view of the equipment (2 laptops and a mixer) to work out exactly how he pieces the sounds together.

If the production of the music, both in his home studio and live, is singular and individual, then its consumption offers the possibilities of either social interaction or introspection.

Indeed, as the sonically challenging but frequently brilliant pieces segue into each other, it is one of the few disappointments, that in support of his fourth (and possibly last) album as Four Tet, Hebden has made no attempt to broaden the delivery of his musical oeuvre.

The jazzy, rather than acoustic folk, influences of his recent work would have endeared themselves to some extra instrumentation, along the lines of his recent collaboration with drummer, Steve Reid.

Instead, it is Hebden and machines alone, and while there is little in the way of spectacle other than some furious mouse movements and the occasional shy wave, there remains something engaging about the show.

It could be because this is something of a �best of� set, with the highlights of the recently released ‘Everything Ecstatic’ (‘A Joy’ and ‘Smile Around The Face’) sitting comfortably alongside previous singles like ‘As Serious As Your Life’ that maintains the interest, more likely it is the frequent and unexpected twists that characterise his musical trajectory.

Though the present is transfixing, his future is illimitable.

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