R.E.M. Shine On New Live Recording

R.E.M., Live at the Olympia in Dublin
(Warner Bros Records)

The 39 songs from Live at the Olympia are an R.E.M. connoisseur’s dream. Not only do they take a homerun swing at the I.R.S. years (23 tracks), they also hit that homerun with their most vital and exciting live recording to date. Heck, nearly a third of the tracks are from their first three releases alone (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning). This seems like a promise to R.E.M. fans that, with last year’s Accelerate, they’re returning to their glory days as the band that defined college radio.

When Mike Mills yells through a bullhorn in the beginning, “This is not a show!” he is letting listeners know that these five nights in Dublin are rehearsals…rehearsals for new songs on the upcoming Accelerate, as well as practice for the ensuing tour. Sure, one could argue that out of five nights of songs, they were sure to cull some great sounding music. But this music is beyond great…it takes the R.E.M. fans back to a time when the band was at the top of their game.

Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills remain as originals (drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997). Ministry’s Bill Rieflin returns from the last album on drums and Scott McGaughey sits in on guitars and backing vocals.

For 2008’s excellent Accelerate, the Dublin audience was treated as lab rats, with nine of the eleven tracks that made the album played here. One title you may not recognize, “Disguised,” was later renamed “Supernatural Superserious” (“Everybody here, comes from somewhere / That they would just as soon forget, and disguise”) and released as the first single from Accelerate. The new songs are wildly accepted, as the Irish seem to agree with Americans: R.E.M. is back, reminding us how they elevated alternative music to an art form.

As the new accelerated songs are interspersed throughout the album, it mostly consists of what made R.E.M. great, which was the beginning. Songs from their initial independent EP, Chronic Town, shine here as four of the five are performed in a way unfamiliar to fans: Michael Stipe’s lyrics are intelligible. No longer do we hear the murmur that was their trademark in the early eighties. Each song is loud, crisp, and thrilling. I mean, who knew that Stipe was singing, “It’s been pretty simple so far, vacation in Athens is calling me / And knock, knock, knock on wood, I thought I’d left you behind” from Reckoning’s “Letter Never Sent”?

Standout tracks are clearly the Reckoning selections, especially “Harborcoat.” This song has always been a favorite of mine and is performed here with new life breathed into it. “Cuyahoga,” which Stipe admits to pronouncing incorrectly on Life’s Rich Pageant; “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first live R.E.M. song I ever heard. They opened with it for their St. Louis show on the Fables of the Reconstruction tour in 1985.

Document’s “Welcome to the Occupation” is another bright spot in this already illuminated recording. The closer, “Gardening at Night,” shows how these lads from Athens, Georgia have matured and evolved since it was released in 1982.

Produced by Jacknife Lee, who was also at the helm of last year’s Accelerate, Live at the Olympia in Dublin showcases R.E.M. as alternative rock gods reborn. Diehard fans of the group will find a song or two that will be in heavy rotation on their iPod for years to come.

95. R.E.M., 6/21/08

Location: Lakewood Amphitheatre, Atlanta, GA
Supporting Act(s): Modest Mouse and The National
In the Company of: Chris

It’s been a long wait for the fans of R.E.M. Not so much to see their band play live, but to grab hold of such a high quality piece of work as this year’s “Accelerate.” Not since the early nineties have they recorded a rock and roll album with such intensity. It seems that since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, they have drifted aimlessly from album to album. Don’t get me wrong…there have been some real gems. But overall, no “big plays.” Not until 2008, and what turned out to be one of R.E.M.’s most critically praised releases in years.

For the final stop on their North American tour, they chose a homecoming. As students at the University of Georgia in Athens in the late 70s, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Berry formed what would become one of rock music’s most influential bands. Most of the sold-out crowd of hometown fans at Lakewood Amphitheatre in Atlanta had been a part of that three-decade journey and were here to celebrate.

Instead of kicking off the show with something new, as is the common tradition, R.E.M. chose to bring out the big guns with “These Days,” a certified rocker from 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant.” This set the crowd on fire with no cooling down in sight. The sound was fresh, the music was succinct, and the band has never sounded better. Then, as if to acknowledge their rise back to the top, they performed the new “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” This was one of several songs from “Accelerate,” including “Man-Sized Wreath,” which Stipe explained was written about the desecration of one of his childhood heroes Martin Luther King, Jr. Also from the new album was the building power of “Hollow Man” and “Houston,” a song about the ravages of Hurricane Katrina (“If the storm doesn’t kill me the government will”). “Horse To Water,” and “I’m Gonna DJ” rounded out the new stuff.

Following “Time After Time,” Stipe said to the crowd, “Looks good, sounds good, feels good too!” We agreed. To set up the ultra-political “Ignoreland,” he explained that the song had stemmed from the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era. For the classic “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” (from 1982’s “Reckoning”), Stipe handed the microphone over to bassist Mike Mills, who is well known for his extraordinary harmonies (in actuality, this song was recorded with Stipe singing lead). Off that same album came “Harborcoat,” which showcases R.E.M.’s post-punk sound, exceptional vocals all around, with just a touch of a reggae guitar riff (“They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off / A handshake is worthy if it’s all that you’ve got”). Afterwards, he gave special thanks to the English Beat for their influence on that song (I never would’ve put those two musical institutions together).

At 90 minutes into the show, the band took a bow and exited the stage then returned for one encore offering six more songs. On the sublime and brilliant “Nightswimming,” Stipe leaned on the piano while Mills played the music (“Nightswimming deserves a quiet night / I’m not sure all these people understand”). The only issue I had with that song was that it ended. For the final two song choices, the band was joined onstage by one-half of the Smiths’ genius, Johnny Marr. Marr joined Modest Mouse (for their 2007 release “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank”), who opened for R.E.M. after Brooklyn band the National kicked off the evening. Those final songs were the awe-inspiring “Fall On Me,” which must be the most beautiful song about acid rain ever written, and “Man On The Moon.”

R.E.M. has always been a politically active band. Since their inception in the early eighties, they have had a liberal outlook on the world and been involved with many charitable ventures. During the encore, Stipe knelt down on stage and said, “I’m just going to say this…” and pulled out a t-shirt that the National is selling along with its own merchandise. It was an Obama ’08 shirt. Stipe said that the National’s final song, “Mr. November,” was played in honor of Barack Obama and that all the proceeds would go to his campaign. He went on to say that “…we need to get this man into office and follow through on the dream of Dr. King.” The majority of the crowd was supportive, but there were clearly a few conservatives present. (What do you expect? We are in Georgia.)

Overall, this was one fantastic show. I was transported back to R.E.M.’s hey day in the mid-80s when I attended three of their concerts. But this was different. This was a more mature group of musicians who have actually improved with age. Huge screens displayed the artistic side of the band, showing band members as well as other images and videos in piecemeal bouncing around the screens. There were several songs that I wanted to hear – but did not – including “Begin The Begin,” “Can’t Get There From Here,” “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” and “Bandwagon.” Also sadly absent was ANYTHING from the first two releases “Chronic Town” or “Murmur.”

Indie rock group the National kicked off the evening with a sweet gig that many bands may likely kill for. Besides “Mr. November,” we heard some great songs, including “Start A War,” “Secret Meeting,” and “Fake Empire.” Singer Matt Berninger emoted with his beautiful, deep baritone voice.

Washington’s Modest Mouse, with it’s growing success in the alternative music world, warmed up the crowd nicely. Lead singer Isaac Brock sounded strikingly similar to the Pixies’ Frank Black (or Black Francis, depending on your upbringing). Modest Mouse energized the crowd with such tunes as “Black Cadillacs,” “Satin In A Coffin,” “King Rat,” and the incomparable “Dashboard” (“Well, it would’ve been, could’ve been worse than you would ever know / Oh, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio”). Regardless of the band’s great success and their priceless exposure touring with R.E.M., the fact remains that I saw Johnny Marr live. That’s all that needs to be said.

R.E.M. Set List:

1. These Days
2. Living Well Is The Best Revenge
3. So Fast, So Numb
4. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?
5. Time After Time (AnnElise)
6. Driver 8
7. Man-Sized Wreath
8. Walk Unafraid
9. Hollow Man
10. Ignoreland
11. Houston
12. Electrolite
13. (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville
14. Auctioneer (Another Engine)
15. Harborcoat
16. The One I Love
17. I’ve Been High
18. Let Me In
19. Bad Day
20. Horse To Water
21. Orange Crush
22. I’m Gonna DJ

23. Supernatural Superserious
24. Losing My Religion
25. Pretty Persuasion
26. Nightswimming
27. Fall On Me (w/Johnny Marr)
28. Man On The Moon (w/Johnny Marr)


MUSIC REVIEW: R.E.M. "Accelerate"

2008, Warner Bros. Records

Legend has it that guitarist Peter Buck was working at Wuxtry Records in Athens, Georgia when Michael Stipe strolled in. They talked about music and bands. The rest is history. Twenty-eight years and fourteen albums later R.E.M. has become the little band that could. With the 1982 EP “Chronic Town” and 1983’s “Murmur,” the college radio indie sound was all but invented by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe. Back then, supporters could join the R.E.M. Fan Club for $10. Always the band to put its fans first, membership is still $10.

After a hugely successful decade in the eighties which carried over into the early nineties, R.E.M. seemed to turn introspective, writing more personal songs. This was their nearly rock-free experimental phase. Not all experiments are successful, however, and this move led to limited exposure and fewer sales. The loyal fan base was growing up, getting jobs, and starting families. Bands evolve, people evolve, and things change. So, it was only normal that a “band of the 80s” faded from the spotlight. In 1997, drummer Bill Berry left the band after suffering a brain aneurism during an earlier tour in Europe. It was a huge personal blow to the other members, but they carried on. Since then, they’ve struggled to maintain their stride musically. They have still made good music, just not life-changing music that appeals to the masses. That is until now. “Accelerate” was released on April 1, and is no joke. Buck, Mills, and Stipe have returned to the guitar-driven sound and created their best and most urgent work in years.

The opener, “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” showcases R.E.M’s return to rock. This simple, driving song harkens back to their punk-inspired roots. It also makes the statement that R.E.M. have been living well, with or without big radio hits. Ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin and second guitarist Scott McCaughey complete the vital and aggressive new R.E.M.

The sound of “Man-Sized Wreath” is reminiscent of the “Document” era. Along with the band as a whole, Peter Buck’s guitar power has been resurrected. New life has officially been breathed back into R.E.M.

Then follows the first single from “Accelerate,” “Supernatural Superserious.” The song begins unassumingly with an a Capella Stipe singing “Everybody here…comes from somewhere.” At which point Buck submits a sonic interjection with his weapon, and listeners hear one of the most rocking and vital songs of 2008. With first-class instrumentation, intelligent lyrics, and terrific vocals (including the ever-present backing vocals of Mills), look for this one to grab a Grammy.

Track four begins with a melancholy piano and Stipe singing, “I’ve been lost inside my head / echoes fall off me / I took the prize last night for complicatedness / for saying things I didn’t mean and don’t believe.” “Hollow Man” then soars with guitar and drums and if your foot doesn’t tap, your heart isn’t beating. Stipe sings, “Believe in me, believe in nothing…” Towards the end of the song, a familiar guitar riff brings back memories of “Pretty Persuasion” from 1984’s “Reckoning.” Other straight-ahead rockers include “Accelerate,” “Horse To Water,” and “I’m Gonna DJ.”

The serious “Houston” traces the Hurricane Katrina story and how America failed the victims (“If the storm doesn’t kill me the government will.”). Another song with a social conscience is “Until The Day Is Done.” It was featured in the CNN special “Planet In Peril” which served as a wake-up call for the people of earth to save an environment in need.

“Accelerate” is a solid and effective effort by R.E.M., and a blueprint on how to revive a career nearly lost. U2 is a great example of how, after several great albums, a band can evolve and try new things just to remain fresh and relevant. Unfortunately, fans do not always travel down that road with their band. U2 then returned to the basics with 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and the result was nothing short of stellar. “Accelerate” is R.E.M.’s return. Let’s hope this revival is permanent.

17. R.E.M., 11/17/85

Location: Kiel Opera House, St. Louis, MO
Support act(s): 10,000 Maniacs
In the company of: Dee Ann and friends

After recently becoming a student of R.E.M., this was a night I was excited about. I traveled to St. Louis from Kansas City (about a four-hour drive) to witness a band that would jump high on my list of favorite groups after this evening. Touring in support of their excellent “Fables of the Reconstruction,” R.E.M. kicked off the show with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” I remember this because I was in line in the boys’ room when I heard the first notes on Peter Buck’s guitar. Needless to say, I held it and ran to my seat.

Michael Stipe, who did a lot of “murmuring” on earlier albums, was beginning to come out of his vocal shell. Lyrics were more understandable, and with good results: we could all hear what he was singing and thus realized his tremendous songwriting skills.

Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs exhibited very suitable sounds for the opening gig.