Monday, November 19, 2012

R.E.M. 19: Live At The Olympia

It’s fairly odd that only two years after their first-ever live album—with only one studio album in between—that R.E.M. would release another. Lest we think they were turning into the Rolling Stones, Live At The Olympia isn’t your typical post-tour souvenir. These two CDs are culled from the series of “live rehearsals” the boys—the three main members, plus drums and another guitar—played in Dublin as they were preparing for the album that would become Accelerate.
Of course, the performances didn’t consist solely of all-new, untried material; the bulk of the CD—two-thirds from the Bill Berry years—provides fresh takes on some of the deeper recesses of their catalog. Ecstatic fans in the audience (and now, listening on their player of choice) are treated to six songs from Reckoning, five from Fables and all but one from the Chronic Town EP. Only Green, Out Of Time and Up go unrepresented. But they’re not carbon copies either—there’s energy behind each song, whether introduced by Stipe with an anecdote or described lovingly in Peter Buck’s liner notes. The sharp-eared will notice a changed family dynamic, with “Gardening At Night” played at the request of longtime advisor Bertis Downs, while all references to “Jefferson” have been removed from “Little America”.
Of course, it’s an album for fans, so while there’s no need to into detail for each old song, a few other details are worth mentioning. “Harborcoat” makes it most of the way unscathed, until the tuneless harmonica sets up a purposely sloppy ending. “Circus Envy” is even a lot of fun, more so than surrounded by all the noise on Monster. And whose idea was it to revive “Romance”?
Considering the songs that did end up on Accelerate, it’s interesting to consider the other surviving contenders. “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance”, fine as it is, wouldn’t have added anything to the album, and “Disguised” turns out to be a an early version of “Supernatural Superserious”, somehow not as tight as the recorded version. The slow and sad “On The Fly” comes from the same cloth as “Country Feedback”, but a little more melodic. There’s a middle interlude that threatens to go somewhere else entirely, but instead folds back to the song. It’s a hidden gem all right, but would have been out of place on the album they completed.
Live At The Olympia ends up a nice little surprise, with 39 songs filling up two-and-a-half hours of music, it’s a preferred listen to the other live album. It also provides a nice setup for the live recordings they’d begun including in the anniversary editions of their back catalog.

R.E.M. Live At The Olympia (2009)—

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