R.E.M. – Live At The Olympia

Live At The Olympia (2009)

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1. Living Well Is The Best Revenge 2. Second Guessing 3. Letter Never Sent 4. Staring Down The Barrel Of Middle Distance 5. Disturbance At The Heron House 6. Mr. Richards 7. Houston 8. New Test Leper 9. Cuyahoga 10. Electrolite 11. Man-Sized Wreath 12. So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) 13. On The Fly 14. Maps And Legends 15. Sitting Still 16. Driver 8 17. Horse To Water 18. I’m Gonna DJ 19. Circus Envy 20. These Days 21. Drive 22. Feeling Gravitys Pull 23. Until The Day Is Done 24. Accelerate 25. Auctioneer (Another Engine) 26. Little America 27. 1,000,000 28. Disguised 29. The Worst Joke Ever 30. Welcome To The Occupation 31. Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) 32. Harborcoat 33. Wolves, Lower 34. I’ve Been High 35. Kohoutek 36. West Of The Fields 37. Pretty Persuasion 38. Romance 39. Gardening At Night

 

Part of REM’s Accelerate-era repentant therapy was to jet over to Dublin (to be closer to Bono, perhaps?) in the summer of 2007 to play five live “rehearsals” in a mere 1,300 capacity theater where they workshopped their new songs, played a bunch of old songs they hadn’t done in a really long time, and let people watch! “An experiment in terror,” according to Michael Stipe. That it may have been, but it also resulted in a record so jam-packed with REM-y goodness that it may be the most thoroughly enjoyable goddamn thing they’ve ever put it out.

Imagine, if you will, an alternate universe in which REM never became pop stars and their biggest hit was “Driver 8.” They still put out the same records, but Automatic For The People and Monster didn’t sell any more copies than, say Reckoning, so the IRS period remained their most critically and commercially successful. So when people went to see REM, they didn’t want to hear “The One I Love” or “Losing My Religion” or “Everybody Poops,” but rather “So. Central Rain,” “Sitting Still” and “Gardening At Night.” Then imagine that they put out a balls-rockin’ live album with which you can pretend this dream was a reality. And then realize that you’re not dreaming. I mean, look at this fucking tracklist. SIX songs from Reckoning? FIVE from the long lost redheaded stepchild Fables Of The Reconstruction? A full 4/5ths of Chronic Town?!? And NOTHING from Green or Out Of Time or much of anything at all from the Warner Bros. period, with the biggest hit they play being “Drive?” What the fuck is going on here?!?

The fact that they even remember some of these songs is reason for celebration, but it would hardly matter if the band didn’t sound so freaking crisp and awesome. They’re pared down to just the trio, drummer Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughy, who’s mostly playing second guitar, so instead of expending their energy slavishly trying to recreate the synth tones of “Electron Blue,” they were able to focus on injecting these songs with a raw yet full-bodied and melodic energy that, as far as some of these older songs go, they may never have had before. Buck turns up the crunch and is riffing to the rafters, and he and the band are just nailing everything… even the backing vocals, on songs they hadn’t played in over 20 years, are perfectly in harmony and in all the right places! Stipe sounds great too, so think about this… those old IRS songs were still super melodic when you could barely hear the lead singer, right? Now imagine how they sound when Stipe is ACTUALLY SINGING THEM. So instead of hearing these songs played by artsy dorks with clean guitar tones and some guy muttering into a microphone, we hear them done by a full force, live goddamn juggernaut rock band with great, full-throated vocal performances. It only serves to highlight how terrific and unrelentingly catchy all those old jangle rockers are – even the ones you or I might’ve considered slightly lesser efforts are revelations here – “Letter Never Sent”… “Auctioneer”… “Second Guessing”… “1,000,000”… “Little America”… “These Days”… the list goes on. And butting heads with all the old classics is almost all of Accelerate, plus a couple of tunes that didn’t make the album. And just like they did in the studio, the songs sound, fresh, relevant, catchy and more than worthy of their place in the REM canon, and in these stellar setlists. There’s just a ridiculous amount of great songs played ridiculously well on this record, and even if they do pull out a couple of turds (the song each from Reveal and Around The Sun, the awful Around The Sun outtake “On The Fly,” a messy early, unfinished version of “Supernatural Superserious” titled “Disguised”), there’s 39 freaking songs on this thing, so they barely even make a dent in my enjoyment of it!

The songs are the main event, but Olympia is also entertaining as hell because of how much fun Stipe and the band are having. The record certainly captures the spirit of these performances being “what we do when you’re not looking” (“This is not a show!” announces Mills at the beginning). They leave in a few flubs and there’s lots of hilarious informal stage banter (really! Who knew these guys could make anyone laugh?). All this shows us a side of REM that we’ve never really seen before – a side that likes to play great lost gems of their catalog and has a great time doing it. Do you know those guys? I wish we could see more of them. Regardless, you should hear this. As a 2-disc set of mostly obscure cuts, Olympia ostensibly seems designed to be nothing more than a Pavlovian response mechanism for superfans, but it’s so goddamn listenable I’m not so sure this isn’t as worthy a jumping off point for skeptics or the uninitiated as any. Maybe alternate universe REM is the best REM after all.