Choosing one out of all the gigs I have attended for this column was not an easy task. After all, there have been so many memorable concerts during the past two decades, with some of the absolute best being all four of the Magnetic Fields gigs I went to, seeing the Cure play for more than two hours at the Hultsfred Festival in 1996, all four of the Belle & Sebastian gigs I also went to, finally seeing the Decemberists in Glasgow in 2006… the list goes on and on. But there is one that really stands out for me: the R.E.M. fan club gig I was lucky enough to attend here in Stockholm in 1998.
Being a hardcore fan since the early 90s, I joined the official fan club in 1991, a membership that brought me tons of great stuff, including the exclusive holiday 7” single every Christmas. When the band decided not to tour after the release of ‘Up’ in 1998, they embarked on a fan club tour instead, inviting long-term members to see them for free at small venues. I heard of this tour, but thought that I hadn’t been a member for enough years to qualify for this great treat. Well, it turned out I had. So, on a cold autumn day in 1998, my best friend Johan (we could bring a friend along, too) and I went the 500 kilometres from our home town of Halmstad to Stockholm just to see Michael Stipe and his comrades in concert. I had been waiting for this moment for the past seven or eight years, and after the band cancelled their show in Gothenburg three years earlier, due to Bill Berry’s illness, I thought that I would never get the chance to see them play live.
I still remember when we got to the Grand Hotel, where the gig was taking place, and saw Mike Mills, the bass player, sneak through the lobby. My heart stood still for a few seconds, and all I could think of was “I have to get his autograph”. But I was too slow, and the next moment he was out of sight. Actually, I regretted that for a long time afterwards. But hey, you can’t get it all!
What about the concert then? Well, what can I say? It was absolutely fantastic. The first hour of the show was broadcasted live by both national Swedish TV and radio, which meant that they played a lot of their hits, like ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Man on the Moon’, together with some songs from the new album. But the real treat for me was the second half of the show, when the cameras were turned off. Then the band really started to get into the mood, and they made the audience jump up and down to old classics such as their debut single ‘Radio Free Europe’, ‘Gardening At Night’ and ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’.
If Michael Stipe seemed a bit serious, as always, while being broadcast on TV, he was quite the opposite during the second hour, smiling and telling weird stories with no punch lines, to his band mates’ amusement. We even got a ramshackle cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ before they left the stage, and me with a big smile on my face. I had finally seen my favourite band play live, and I had been standing only a metre or two from Stipe himself!
If I try really hard, I can still remember that the following night was quite horrible (As Johan and I did not have a place to stay in Stockholm, we spent it on benches on the Central Station and on 7 Eleven stores, just to get home to Halmstad in the morning), but that doesn’t really matter. I got to see R.E.M. And it wasn’t just any gig. It was the ultimate gig! That is also the reason why I have never been to any of their Swedish concerts since then. I find it hard to believe that it could be any better than those two hours at Grand Hotel in 1998…