By Al Kaufman
For most people outside of Georgia, R.E.M. stopped being relevant around 1997, when drummer Bill Berry left the band. Also around that time, Michael Stipe's lyrics went from oblique imagery to blatant rants and whines. But even more importantly, R.E.M. stopped rocking and started droning, and each CD release sold a few less than the one before it.
The band seemed to get the message when they went into the studios to produce 2008's Accelerate. The CD was a throwback to earlier times in that R.E.M. seemed to celebrate their music. The album was made with a sort of "let's salvage our reputation" urgency that brought long lost energy and enthusiasm into the mix. It was the band's best album since Automatic for the People, but, alas, it may have been too little too late. Sales were sluggish, as most fans had already moved onto other bands, like Radiohead, that R.E.M. had helped nurture.
But the Athens, Ga. boys are not giving up that easily. Live at the Olympia will make you remember all the reasons you have loved R.E.M., and will make you fall in love with them all over again.
The CD was recorded during a five-night stay at Dublin, Ireland's Olympia Theatre, from June 30 to July 5, 2007. The "shows" were rehearsal's for the Accelerate CD. Indeed, some of the songs on the CD, such as the first single, "Supernatural Superserious," (performed here under the moniker "Disguised") are performed here in earlier – and in this case, inferior – incarnations. A couple of the songs here, the straight out rocker "Staring Down the Barrel of a Gun" and the organ rich ballad "On the Fly," never made the final cut for Accelerate. Both are fine songs that would have been standouts on any of the last few R.E.M. releases, demonstrating just how strong Accelerate is.
The biggest strength of this live CD is that the band went into it with the same type of urgency that they had to make Accelerate. They were somehow able to produce a crystalline sound while capturing the frenetic energy of the crowd in Dublin. While they shy away from their most obvious rocking hits ("What's the Frequency Kenneth," "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and "Stand" are all absent), they reinvent their earlier works with great results. Reckoning is represented with no less than six songs, and four of the cuts here are from their first EP, Chronic Town. It's as if the band has discovered some old friends and are rejuvenated. And, with the new, articulation-minded Stipe, it is actually possible to understand the lyrics to "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)."
Despite their huge mining of the past, this does not feel like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band resting on their laurels. This is a band that decided to record a live CD with material from a new album before that album was even released. For this CD, they decided to record songs they hadn't played in years. And they did it all just because they felt like it. This is the reason many of us fell in love with R.E.M. to begin with. They bucked the trends. During the MTV heyday, they did not mousse up their hair and wear bright clothing. They did not follow the trends. They just played their songs like they wanted to. They're doing it again here, and the results are just as exciting as they were the first time.