Tracing the triumphant live path of one of America’s greatest bands
A fundamentally held presumption about R.E.M. in their later years is that their albums sucked, but they continued to play some of the best live shows of their career. Much of this is debatable, as the latter day albums, post-Bill Berry, were actually pretty damn good, and often great. But their live shows were almost always sublime, and this is illustrated nicely on this mammoth eight CD/DVD box set excavation of full concerts and live radio sessions taking place in England, spanning much of the band’s lifespan, from 1984 until 2008.
Early R.E.M. is represented via a show broadcast via radio from Nottingham Rock City in 1984. It captures the nascent verve of a young and truculent R.E.M., rife with spitfire fury and political commentary, anathema to the “Good Morning America” Reagan-worship milieu ruling popular American culture at the time, drawing largely from their output through Reckoning, with sneak previews of tracks that would later surface on Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant. It also shows the spontaneous, and even improvisational side of R.E.M. that faded away as years progressed. Listen to the “9-9/Hey Diddle Diddle/Feeling Gravity’s Pull” for a salient illustration, as Stipe speaks in tongues, extemporaneously?
The band was documented at their commercial peak at a Milton Keynes show on 1995’s Monster tour. It was something of the “I’m Not There” tour for R.E.M retrospectively, as they were clearly too self-conscious of the irony inherent in being the “World’s Biggest Band,” and Stipe in particular was at his most reserved and laconic, often jettisoning heart-on-sleeve sincerity for glam rock poses and playful gender blurring. Yet there are moments of splendid, empathic grandeur, particularly on the as-of-then unreleased renditions of New Adventures of Hi-Fi songs. “Departure” hurtles recklessly in a rapid-fire vomit spurt, and “Undertow” is desperately cloistered in murk and feedback. Each a introduced tersely by Stipe, the latter as a “water song,” and the former with a bit more exposition, more precisely “about passage, and a part of life, which is death.” It would later be revealed by Stipe to be more specifically about the death of River Phoenix, and with or without that information, the lyric, “There’s so much to tell you so little time/You will be young forever/There is so much I can’t do,” devastates, even as the song’s innate propulsion sublimates it into a grand catharsis. “Undertow,” with Stipe’s stentorian proclamation of “I’m drowning,” guided by Mike Mills’ guardian angel backing vocals urging “Breathing ourselves,” is baptismal redemption, a spiritual cousin to Patti Smith’s “Birdland.”
That Milton Keynes show, while focusing largely upon Monster, and providing ample evidence that live was the best forum in which to appreciate that polarizing album’s brilliance, also features a handful of Automatic for the People songs, appropriately roughed up for the occasion. “Try Not to Breathe” is the one that benefits most, the waltz-time traipse lent an electrified, visceral kick, with its death drive redrawn into a lust for life in its fevered immediacy, while “Drive” is a pure funk-groove workout, bearing little resemblance to its dirge-like incarnation on Automatic. “Everybody Hurts” evinces a power far outstripping its studio counterpart, lapidary jettisoned on this rough-hewn reading, chill inducing at its outro, as Stipe urgently entreats “Hold on” at its sermon-like cacophonous emotional apex. “Man On the Moon” is blistering, the non-hit that’s celebrated like a hit, kicking into overdrive as Stipe howls “Cool” at the song’s bridge. It’s a song about transcendentalism at its most transcendent, and this was R.E.M. at its most universally connected, slyly subverting arena clichés while still managing to hold its mass audience rapt.
The band’s 1999 Glastonbury Pyramid Stage appearance circa the Up tour showcases how different the band was live with Joey Waronker as their hired gun drummer and Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow as multi-instrumental sidemen. The tempos are faster and the arrangements looser, as on the breathless, amphetamine careen of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “The One I Love,” culminating with a triumphant, pre-millennial battering of “It’s the End of the Word as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).”
The final era of R.E.M., with Bill Rieflin on drums, is given short shrift here unfortunately. But the St. James London show, from the beginning of the Around the Sun promo circuit, is blindingly brilliant. “E-Bow the Letter,” featuring Thom Yorke as ersatz Patti Smith, is a highlight, with the Radiohead singer’s euphonious falsetto upstaging Stipe’s catatonic speak/sing Lou Reed-aped style. And songs such as “Aftermath,” “Around the Sun” and “Leaving New York” are rendered all the more gorgeous in their fulsome, less fussed over arrangements, suggesting what Around the Sun might’ve sounded like had Peter Buck’s edict of spontaneity been more often adhered to.
Accelerate is barely represented here, bar a short session featuring a gossamer acoustic version of “Supernatural Superserious,” and the band’s final studio album, Collapse Into Now, appears nowhere, as the band didn’t do any live performances to support it, which is disappointing, considering the strength of those songs. Despite these omissions, this purview is vast, encompassing R.E.M.’s wide stylistic breadth across the span of three decades.
As far as R.E.M. live albums go, R.E.M. at the BBC ranks alongside Live at the Olympia in the “essential” department. It superbly captures R.E.M.’s joyful noise and generous spirit, and makes us simultaneously miss and celebrate the band that captivated so many of us for three decades. It’s over. Hooray. But collections like these assuage, gently reinforcing and reminding just how lucky we were to have them around at all. “Hey kids, rock and roll,” goes that sinister line from “Drive.” That’s what it ultimately is, so blast this collection loud and remember every moment.