“We’re R.E.M. and this is what we do…when you’re not around.” This quote from Michael Stipe explains the live experiment of their performance at the Olympia in Dublin, Ireland, which was essentially to allow fans to bear witness to a rehearsal session. It reminds me of a mythical story I once heard about a devoted fan that was caught in the ceiling trying to sneak a peak at his beloved Pink Floyd. He just wanted to see first hand how the magic happens. Unfortunately, creating an album is at times akin to making laws, and as they say, just like sausages, it’s better not seeing them made.
But Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe wanted to attempt what the lead singer and chief lyricist called an “experiment in terror for ourselves.” The idea was the get away from the stagnant studio atmosphere that created the overproduced sounds of Reveal and Around the Sun. The ironic thing was that both of those records were beloved around Europe, including Dublin, where these trial shows were being conducted.
What R.E.M. was attempting to do was throw away the familiar Athens recording playbook and shake things up by parting ways with Pat McCarthy and turning to innovative producer Jackknife Lee. What they came up with was setting up a five night residency at The Olympia in Dublin by testing the new songs that would end up on Accelerate, and revisiting some vintage tracks from their canon they rarely perform on stage. The idea was to get the audience reaction from the unreleased songs and feed off the inspiration from those hidden gems that R.E.M. fans have adored for years.
What I’m impressed with is how seamlessly sequenced this live document from the Dublin shows flows. It’s so much better than the R.E.M. Live disc that was released two years earlier. What the band took from those shows, also recorded in Dublin, was to go back to the past. You can think of this like a writer going back to his early work and feeding off the inspirations of the worlds he created way back when. The experiment worked—Accelerate was a top ten album over the globe including hitting number two in America. You can hear a vibrantly revved up R.E.M. on stage sounding like 20-year-olds playing songs like “Sitting Still” from Murmur and “Carnival (Box Cars of Sorts)” from the Chronic Town EP.
Listening to revamped versions of “Driver 8” from Fables of the Reconstruction and “Second Guessing” from Reckoning takes me back to my much maligned yet memorable teenage years when I first heard the music of Buck, Mills and Stipe. Oh, those days and nights I spent in my room trying to decipher Michael’s lyrics to no avail. To my joyful surprise, six songs are represented from Reckoning, the first R.E.M. album I ever purchased on cassette.
I love hearing how much R.E.M. are enjoying themselves on stage during this rehearsal in Dublin. Michael even makes the hilarious comment, “Note: these lyrics are approximations—Stipe himself has no ideas what he says!” Thank you, search engine!” I laughed because I remember before the Monster tour, I watched the band being interviewed, and they had to send a roadie to buy a R.E.M. songbook for the boys to relearn their own songs before every tour and these shows are no exception. Hearing Buck, Mills and Stipe resurrect rarely heard tracks from our favorite albums is a treat very few bands have the guts to bring to the stage.
Speaking of Monster, you’ll find a very killer version of “Circus Envy” and one of Peter and Michael’s favorite songs, “New Test Leper,” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi. When looking at the track-listing you won’t find any of the greatest hits from R.E.M. Instead what you will discover are treasures from the band’s eclectic catalog. I’m not usually a fan of live albums, as there are so many substandard ones, but Live at Olympia has surpassed my expectations. Simply, these 39 songs make up the most memorable live album I have experienced in the past five years. These live rehearsals reestablish the fact that R.E.M. are one of the best live acts of the last 30 years. It’s easy for a band to go out and play their number one songs on stage, but to go out in front of an audience and perform unfinished songs is creatively fearless.
R.E.M. will take you back through their history with a glorious double live disc that shows one of the greatest bands can bring it even during a recorded rehearsal. One of my favorite parts of Live at the Olympia is hearing Stipe fumble the lyrics to “Drive,” proving that these shows are rehearsals. Mistakes and all, this is R.E.M. at their best. Live at the Olympia showcases one of my beloved bands from my youth on stage sounding powerful and fun while reminiscing in rhythms that we have loved since the dawn of the ’80s. Live at the Olympia is a once in a lifetime experience for those who were there, but as a recorded document it’s a resonating success.