Well well well. One of the last long-standing, self-imposed rules has finally been broken by the always-evolving and daring R.E.M.: the legendary band has released its first live album. A document of their 2005 tour in support of the somewhat lackluster Around the Sun, this CD/DVD set is drawn from shows on February 26 and 27 of that year in Dublin, Ireland.
Of course, hearing R.E.M. live isn’t exactly a novelty; the band has released several live tracks as b-sides throughout their career, as well as several live videos and DVDs. Not only that, but they have always had an extremely laissez-faire attitude, approaching encouragement, towards fans taping and trading copies of its shows.
Which is not unexpected; playing live has always been a huge part of the band, one curiously unknown to most casual listeners. Much sloppier and aggressive in concert than on their carefully crafted studio output, R.E.M. spent the 1980’s as a drunken traveling carnival, then in the 90’s perfected the amplified, out-door, arena-rock sound that befits one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most legendary bands.
But what makes R.E.M. Live a revelation is that it is a live album, and can be listened to without the visual distraction of video (though it does come with a DVD for those inclined). As such, one can for the first time appreciate the band’s live ability on a completely musical level. And who knew these guys in their mid 40’s were capable of such effortless magnificence?
R.E.M. — R.E.M. Live: Track-by-track review
1. “I Took Your Name” [live]
Starting with an authoritatively monumental guitar din, R.E.M. Live takes this somewhat minor song from Monster and transforms it into the perfect concert opener. Mostly retaining the form of the original track, the band has removed the processed glam sheen from the song and recast it as a regular rock song.
The transformation works; much of Monster sounded like a collection of good songs being pinned down by guitar processors, and an affected Ziggy Stardust patina, against their will. Here, “I Took Your Name” has escaped those shackles and bobs along freely in a sea of big guitars and party-rhythm drumming. Stipe’s occasional yelling is an obvious but effective ploy to rouse the crowd to its feet.
R.E.M. albums can be quiet and contemplative; fortunately, the band knows that those things won’t sustain a big concert.
2. “So Fast, So Numb” [live]
This fan-favorite from 1996’s brilliant New Adventures in Hi-Fi has been sped up slightly, and sounds almost — but not quite — like classic 4-chord punk. This version retains the perfectly-crafted minor-chord choruses (“You love it, you hate it…”), and the piano runs from the original are recreated here too.
Amazingly, this live take improves on the original. The band seems to enjoy playing it as much as the audience enjoys dancing to it. Stipe again turns the ends of lines into galvanizing shouts. One of the best songs of R.E.M.’s career, “So Fast, So Numb” is dizzying on this album, played by musicians who know the song intimately and are still crazy with passion for it after all these years.
3. “Boy In The Well” [live]
One of a surprisingly small number of songs from the band’s then-current album, Around the Sun, this is the album’s first ballad, such as it is. The instrumentalists are able to establish a quiet atmosphere of menace underneath the darkly snarling guitar and Stipe’s confessional, magnetic vocals.
The startlingly clear sound of this album pays off on this track, as the toned-down arrangement allows for subtleties to be seen through the clearing fog. The energy of the first two tracks isn’t wasted, though; the expansive chroruses and the churning verses are propelled by unseen forces, keeping things moving inexorably along.
4. “Cuyahoga” [live]
Reaching deep into their past, the band pleases older fans with this chestnut from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Make no mistake: after drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, R.E.M. became a wholly different band. So hearing them play one of their well-loved classics is very interesting.
And really, this track sounds not unlike the original. It hasn’t been reworked in any obvious way, and Peter Buck plays the exact guitar from the album version and Mike Mills’ bass ties it all together just like it always has.
One could argue that this is because the band has no real interest in this track anymore, and included it here to appease older fans. Well, maybe. But you can’t fault the band for either of those things. They’ve always been artists who don’t look back, but have always appreciated their fans and tried to give them as much as they could. And “Cuyahoga” sounds good here, not as impassioned as the newer material, but pleasant, and the song sits very comfortably with its younger cousins.
5. “Everybody Hurts” [live]
One of R.E.M.’s most legendary songs, and a common feature of their live shows (it was one of a handful the band would play at Live 8 in the summer of 2005). Here, the instrumentation is, again, largely the same as found on the Automatic For the People original: very simple, popping percussion, Buck’s hypnotic staircase-roaming picking, and subtle organ washes buried beneath it all.
When the band dives into the thrilling middle section, Stipe lets the audience carry the original, soaring melody, as he is no longer able to reach the heights of “Don’t throw your hand.” The crowd happily obliges; this song may approach a maudlin obviousness, but the crowd’s close identification with the sentiments in “Everybody Hurts” can give even a hardened observer goosebumps on this version. (At the end of the song, Stipe says “thanks everybody,” and it sounds like he is humbly acknowledging their singing during the song, not their applause afterwards.)
Elsewhere, Stipe is in fine form, proving that even though his voice isn’t what it used to be, it’s still one of the most emotive and agile in rock ‘n’ roll. Buck’s majestic chords throughout the lengthy coda raise the song to a communal, spiritual release. This is, for better or worse, what a live album should be like.
6. “Electron Blue” [live]
One of the standout tracks from Around the Sun, this one is introduced here by Stipe as his favorite from that album.
Opened with an odd synthesizer hum and some wild guitar feedback, this is R.E.M.’s “weird” side adapted for a concert setting. The band is competent, and Stipe nails the tricky vocal melody, but this version of “Electron Blue” seems in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the uncooperative guitar squawks.
Uncommonly for the modern era, there is a lot of stereo separation on this track; the offending guitar is panned completely to the left channel, which may be an attempt to send it to the corner, like a wayward schoolboy, but also serves to isolate and bring attention to it — just like the willful lad pouting in the corner.
Ending quickly and unceremoniously, one wonders if Stipe is pleased by how his “favorite song” turned out here. It seems like it needs a bit more attention.
7. “Bad Day” [live]
Dating from before “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, and a precursor to that song, “Bad Day” surprised fans of R.E.M. bootlegs in the early 2000’s by rearing its long-forgotten head again.
It’s relationship with the Document classic is obvious, with a musically-identical chorus, and a very similar syllable-filled vocal rant driving the verses. Bringing the crowd back to its feet after the last few track’s slow- and mid-tempo excursions, R.E.M. seems to jump again to life on this song, with the band members in tight collusion with each other and Stipe playing a manic, atonal harmonica solo just like on the studio outtake of nearly 20 years earlier. Mike Mills gets in some particularly satisfying background harmonies, too.
8. “The Ascent Of Man” [live]
Not a regular feature of the band’s sets at the time, this performance of one of Around the Sun’s more fully-realized songs finds the band trying its best, and mostly succeeding. Musically, it is fairly simple, and Buck keeps it interesting with a staccato palm-muting technique that tries mischievously to spoil the tranquility.
Stipe’s high-register “Yeah, yeahs” are the obvious focal point of the song, and his attempts at them are valiant but ultimately somewhat lacking here. On the studio version of this song, he was fine; it must have been the strain of a live show that taxed his voice somewhat.
But, no matter. This is a live album, and polished performances are not what it’s about. It’s about community, excitement, connection with the audience — on those counts, and thanks to the beauty of the song itself, R.E.M. Live’s “The Ascent of Man” succeeds.
9. “The Great Beyond” [live]
One of post-Berry R.E.M.’s most effective numbers, “The Great Beyond” started with an intriguingly amorphous hum, phasing in and out, and although that is recreated quite well here, this version differs in that it has been sped up slightly, and the heavy electric guitars have been beefed up.
As strange, subterranean blips and beeps swirl around almost imperceptibly, Stipe delivers an impassioned vocal, and the audience seems to match him note for note. The band rocks on this one, driving the song along with an effortless propulsiveness and absolutely beautiful mix.
10. “Leaving New York” [live]
Another recent song, this is one of the most beautiful performances on R.E.M. Live. The arrangement is excellent, with Buck’s quiet rumbling guitar mingling with a playful bass and taciturn piano, and Stipe giving the lyrics a relaxed, resigned-but-purposeful performance, at times exploding suddenly in a fireball of liveliness.
Mills’ background vocals are prominent here, and give this performance much of its multifaceted complexity. Musically, the song itself is pretty dynamic, going through a series of changes, and the band seems quite comfortable with them on this live version. All in all, this is one of the best ways to make a case for latter-day R.E.M. as a band with a lot of fire left in them.
11. “Orange Crush” [live]
Appealing again to their back catalogue, R.E.M. come up with one of their older classics that best translates to recent, big rock shows.
Unlike “Cuyahoga” earlier on this album, this song has been punched up from its original version, which was noisy enough. Like “Cuyahoga” though, the arrangement has not changed much. Mills still supports the main vocal with his admonishments “don’t collar me,” and Stipe still rails through a megaphone for the dramatic choruses.
One part that has been updated is the instrumental middle section. Buck replaces the slow-paced chiming of the original with a fearsome, looped feedback echo, sounding perhaps like Rage Against the Machine would if he’d joined them instead of R.E.M. Despite all this, the song has lost some of its vitality from its incendiary performances during the Green tour of 1989, but it still rocks hard.
12. “I Wanted To Be Wrong” [live]
Explicitly introduced by Michael Stipe as a protest song against George W. Bush’s government, this song has noble intentions, but it remains fairly boring. Its sentiments may have been appreciated by an audience that presumably was largely appalled by concurrent American political situations, but that doesn’t mean the song necessarily fits in with a live show.
The musicians play the song with skill, of course. They may even have played it with passion, but the song as written doesn’t call for much passion. It’s a classic R.E.M. ballad, but, although lovely, “I Wanted To Be Wrong” just doesn’t amount to much here.
13. “Final Straw” [live]
The second overtly political protest song in a row, “Final Straw” is much more successful than “I Wanted To Be Wrong.” This is a testament to the song itself; it’s melodramatic, and the unblinking lyrics match the subdued anger that coarses through the song.
What ultimately makes this song work is Stipe’s passionate singing and the acoustic guitar’s hypnotically strummed rhythm: it recalls early 1960’s protest music, while the furious vocals send chills down the spine as Stipe demands,
Look me in the eye
And tell me why
Tell me why.
14. “Imitation Of Life” [live]
Having politicized the evening, R.E.M. gets back down to what it really came for on “Imitation of Life” — entertaining.
One of their best latter-day rock numbers, hearkening back to their mid-1980’s jangly period, this version finds the band in fine form but Stipe sounding slightly bored again.
In fact, the track as a whole has a weariness about it that suits a lengthy live album; it actually serves to remind the listener that playing a concert can be extremely draining, and if R.E.M. sound like they’re getting slightly worn out here, they’ve still got plenty of energy. Not as focused as the Reveal original, but good fun nonetheless.
15. “The One I Love” [live]
One of their crowning achievements from the 1980’s version of the group, this was obviously placed in the show and on the album as a nod to older fans. Its sentiments, vicious and direct, have been expressed in other songs since, and one assumes that R.E.M. would sooner choose one of thse so as to stave off boredom among themselves as musician.
But they don’t seem bored here, and this version of “The One I Love” soars, with the band firing on all cylinders and clearly enjoying it. Perhaps they need an extremely well-known song they can enjoy without having to think too much about how it goes — they can presumably play this one in their sleep.
Due to this close familiarity, they are able to relax, and deliver one of the album’s best performances, which the crowd obviously eats up.
16. “Walk Unafraid” [live]
The sole representative of 1998’s under-appreciated Up, “Walk Unafraid” always seemed like one of Stipe’s favorites, and it is curious that more songs from that album didn’t make it onto this album.
The band gives the track some jazzy piano-tinkling amidst the howling feedback of the verses, and attacks the song with gusto on the choruses, which Michael Stipe clearly enjoys too. This is a particularly unified performance, with everyone on stage marching in the same formation, and barely able to contain their glee. Peter Buck in particular explores noisy feedback to a degree unusual even for him.
17. “Losing My Religion” [live]
A feature of nearly all, if not literally all, of R.E.M.’s live shows since its release in 1990, “Losing My Religion” remains the band’s biggest song and one of the enduring classics of rock ‘n’ roll.
Somehow, despite what some would call an egregious case of over-exposure on the radio, the Out of Time original still sounds fresh now, and somehow the group still seems to give the song its full due live. To the biggest cheer of the night, Peter Buck leads off with the song’s famous mandolin riff and the rest of the band carries the music along with grace and unrelenting power.
Perhaps the vocal melody is perfect; perhaps the curious melancholy strikes a chord deep within huge segments of the population; perhaps the mandolin sound is simply intoxicating. Whatever it is, R.E.M. Live’s version of “Losing My Religion” is as enveloping as the original, a true testament to the song’s durability.
18. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” [live]
The opening salvo of 1994’s white-boy glam Monster, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” scoots along with a busy chord sequence and an ingenious lyric. Like “I Took Your Name,” this version has had the glam removed — or, at least, modified — and the tune now rocks with the vitality only hinted at on the original studio version.
As the first song of the encore, this is a great choice. Just as the main set needs a good kick-off, so does the encore, and the crowd must have loved being rocked by this one. This is live R.E.M. at their finest — mighty, but fun, rock ‘n’ roll.
19. “Drive” [live]
The album’s best transition, the fuzzy electric guitar morass of “Kenneth” gives way suddenly to the beautiful opening acoustic guitar of 1992’s “Drive.”
Unexpectedly well-suited to a live environment, the slow, ethereal song seems to rebuff the audience’s desire for something faster, but it doesn’t matter: the performance is magic, in an offhand kind of way, and Stipe engages again in some attempts to stir up the crowd vocally.
Unlike other slow songs on this live album, this one remains slow throughout, never really morphing into a heavy rock section — every time that starts to happen, the music instantly gets quiet again. One admires R.E.M. for taking the chance by putting this song here, and making it succeed through the power of their own conviction.
20. “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” [live]
Mike Mills, who seemed to want an almost-equal billing as an R.E.M. vocalist during the late 1980’s, has in recent years receded into the background as a singer to concetrate on arranging and multi-instrumentation.
So it’s good to hear Mills singing this song, which he wrote 25 years earlier and which appeared (sung by Stipe) on 1984’s Reckoning. Again, the song’s structure hasn’t changed much, but this one is just for fun. The song was always something of a light-hearted moment for R.E.M., having been recast from a fast punk number to the exaggerated country style it received in 1984, and which is featured here.
21. “I’m Gonna DJ” [live]
Teasingly putting its new, unreleased song towards the end, and leaving departing audiences with its aftertaste, “I’m Gonna DJ” is something of an odd departure for R.E.M.
Extremely upbeat, the song packs in enough simplistic, sing-along phrases and catchy beats to be arrested for pandering. (“Hey steady steady!”) R.E.M. has always been known as a rural, folksy, often offbeat band; although not entirely fair, there is something to that, and their attempt here comes across as peculiarly leaden, if not more irretrievably misguided.
But there does seem to be something to work with; the song has a genuine liveliness, and as stupid as the lyrics get, they’re fun and don’t kid themselves by aspiring to anything more:
Death is pretty final
I’m collecting vinyl
I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world!
Quite what this band is doing singing about DJ culture is still unknown, but the track is undeniably fun, and though they may need to work on it a little more, it is an altogether new style for an ensemble that, mercifully, becomes bored by the same ol’, same ol’. An encouraging sign, if they can find the song’s true soul.
22. “Man On The Moon” [live]
Ending the proceedings with what they have always called “the quintessential R.E.M. song about Andy Kaufman,” this track is, again, sped up from the well-known Automatic For the People version. The crowd enjoys this one, and eagerly takes on the role of the “yeah yeah, yeah yeah” background vocals.
Thus, R.E.M. Live ends on an energetic, communal note. The band’s relationship with its audience is unusual and remarkable; the people are loyal to the band, and the band responds in kind.
On this thrilling live version, the band blows its wad, scraping the stratosphere with a tempestuous performance that leaves the audience cheering wildly for more. Over a drawn-out dénouement, cymbals crashing and guitar feeding back, the band members thank the crowd and wish them good night, leaving the stage as the audience dissipates, their ears still ringing with “Man On the Moon” and 2 hours of an electrifying band at a live peak.
R.E.M. Live by R.E.M.
“I Took Your Name” [live]
“So Fast, So Numb” [live]
“Boy In The Well” [live]
“Everybody Hurts” [live]
“Electron Blue” [live]
“Bad Day” [live]
“The Ascent Of Man” [live]
“The Great Beyond” [live]
“Leaving New York” [live]
“Orange Crush” [live]
“I Wanted To Be Wrong” [live]
“Final Straw” [live]
“Imitation Of Life” [live]
“The One I Love” [live]
“Walk Unafraid” [live]
“Losing My Religion” [live]
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” [live]
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” [live]
“I’m Gonna DJ” [live]
“Man On The Moon” [live]