The 1991 appearance was a big deal when the band had just released Out Of Time but weren’t undergoing a massive tour for it. But they were already darlings of MTV, which was arguably at the height of its influence on the music industry. The Unplugged franchise had already spawned a handful of companion albums, but had yet to win Grammys.
And of course, it’s not strictly unplugged by definition, for while Bill Berry gamely taps his bongos, Mike Mills stays mostly ensconced behind an organ; he does come forward to warble the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around”, one of the few pop songs Michael Stipe appears to have heard before. Still, the forum fits the six songs from the album they were promoting, which had plenty of acoustic touches to begin with. As a bonus for those fans who’d been hoarding their cassette-next-to-the-VCR copies all these years, five more songs from the taping appear at the end of the first disc, including the B-sides “Fretless” and “Rotary Eleven”.
Ten years later, the band’s stock had waned considerably, as had that of the channel no longer devoted to “music television”. Perhaps not able to convince VH-1 to do it, they returned to MTV to promote Reveal, their second album without Bill. The three guys who would augment them for the rest of their career fill in all the extra space ably on a set mostly culled from material they’d written since the first Unplugged show. (Interestingly, the “unbroadcast” portion is almost entirely from Reveal, which should be telling. And what’s with the “unabetted” comment appearing in two different places? Bad editing!) Much of their music in that period—as demonstrated by “Electrolite”, “Daysleeper”, “At My Most Beautiful”—was more acoustic-based anyway, and didn’t necessarily involve drums, making Bill’s absence less noticeable. But how is it that Bob Dylan doesn’t get credit for the verse of “Like A Rolling Stone” stuck at the end of “Country Feedback”?
An official R.E.M. Unplugged album should be welcome to fans, and certainly to those who need to be reminded how important those guys were at one time. It also has us wondering what else they’ll dig up, and how soon.
R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 & 2001—The Complete Sessions (2014)—3½