Can you guess what kind of sleep Judge Erich Asperschlager didn't lose over writing this review?
"I made a pact at the beginning of the European tour that the phrase 'Thank you very much' is a really stupid thing to say to a large group of people, so: 'Thanks a lot.'"
It's been more than twenty-five years since members of R.E.M. met in an Athens, Georgia, record store. Now, three years after releasing their thirteenth studio album, Around the Sun, the politically conscious grandaddies of alternative music are putting out their first official live album—called, simply, R.E.M. Live—from a performance at the Point Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, on February 27, 2005 (during the European leg of their Around the World Tour). In addition to the Live concert film—directed by Blue Leach, who acted as the tour's video director—the set includes the show on CD. While Live is hardly comprehensive—about a third of the songs come from Around the Sun—it's full of great music and gives R.E.M. fans something to listen to while we wait for the band to finish their fourteenth album (which they're recording, coincidentally, in Dublin).
Here's the set list:
"I Took Your Name"
There are no interviews; no talking heads; no introduction besides a few quick shots of frontman Michael Stipe applying his Lone Ranger-style mask of greasepaint before the band heads out on stage. Be sure you've taken your Dramamine, though, because from the opening count-off the film is all frenetic camera movement, going in and out of focus, with extreme angles, close-ups, and quick-fire editing that barely lets up, even during the slow songs. The video is colorful and stylish, if a bit grainy. Not that it matters: the camera moves so fast, detail is as easily lost as your lunch. Though it's a matter of personal taste, I think this style works better for a three minute music video than an hour and forty-five minute concert—but at least it's not boring.
The songs are mostly from R.E.M.'s later albums (just so you know, I consider anything from Out of Time onwards to be "late" R.E.M.), with only three tracks from the I.R.S. Records years ("Cuyahoga," "The One I Love," and "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"). As with any performance by a band that's been around for more than a quarter century, there are a lot of great songs they don't play—early classics like "So. Central Rain" and "Driver 8," or deep catalog stuff like "Swan Swan H," and "Harborcoat." Considering the concert was part of a tour in support of Around the Sun, I can hardly fault the band for playing so many cuts off that album. Still, I'm not a huge fan of the record—despite its coming after Reveal, their best album since Automatic For The People—so the new songs mostly made me wish they'd put out a live album a long time ago. That said, I found that being cushioned between more familiar songs made the new stuff (especially "Boy In The Well," "Electron Blue," and "Leaving New York") much more enjoyable.
Even if you prefer the band's previous albums, it's easy to recommend a purchase: "Orange Crush" is a song that benefits from being played live, "Walk Unafraid" (from 1998's experimental Up) goes from slow organ dirge to full-out rocker, and "Imitation of Life" is just plain fun (despite Stipe's admission that he has a tendency to sing the chorus off-key). The group has great energy, as does the crowd (especially that one girl…you'll know her when you hear her). Meant in the best possible way, they sound like a band that has, and hasn't, been doing this since the early '80s. Despite avoiding the occasional high note, Stipe's singing is as dynamic as ever, and both guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills deliver like the pros they are. These are no tired has-beens phoning it in: R.E.M. can still rock. The only thing keeping this from being an essential live recording is the absence of original drummer Bill Berry (who left the band in 1997)—one more reason to wish for a forgotten late-'80s/early-'90s era concert to be discovered in a vault somewhere.
Including both DVD and CD versions of the concert in the same set is a nice touch. If you dig the DVD, you'll definitely appreciate being able to take the tracks with you. The only downside is that the two versions are exactly the same, for more than you'd pay for either separately. It's too bad there aren't any format-specific extras to differentiate the two—perhaps an interview, or a couple of bonus tracks on one or both. The only other thing missing from the DVD is any audio format besides stereo. Not having surround sound in a concert film seems like a missed opportunity.
Minor nitpicks aside, R.E.M. Live captures a great band on a good night, and is a worthy addition to any fan's collection. For those of you who gave up on R.E.M. a long time ago (I know you're out there), take this chance to reconnect. Not guilty.
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