In March 2007, R.E.M. were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The ceremony offered Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills the opportunity to reunite with Bill Berry and – just for the one night – R.E.M.’s original iteration performed suitably charged versions of “Gardening At Night,” “Man On The Moon” and “Begin The Begin,” along with a cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
A joyous, if slightly emotional, occasion, the event reaffirmed R.E.M.’s place at rock’n’roll’s top table – a territory they had occupied since their seventh full-length studio album, 1991’s Out Of Time went on to sell over 18 million copies worldwide. However, even as their Hall Of Fame triumph acknowledged the Athens, Georgia, outfit’s remarkable canon of music, the band were beginning to question their continued relevance.
R.E.M.’s most recent studio album, Around The Sun, was trailed by a majestic hit single, “Leaving New York,” but overall Buck, Mills, and Stipe were unhappy with the record’s contents. Buck later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the album “just wasn’t really listenable” and revealed to the UK’s Q magazine, “Even Michael [Stipe] was going, ‘Y’know, if we make another bad record, it’s over.”
Over the winter of 2006, the band went back to the drawing board, with Buck and Mills joined by touring alumni Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin while they worked up a wealth of new songs. Hard, fast and purposeful, the material they re-emerged with was, in effect, the most visceral rock’n’roll music R.E.M. had put their stamp on since 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi.
As most of the new songs were begging to be performed live, the band decided to revert to their original default working practice, wherein they would vigorously work up their freshly composed tunes onstage before recording them in the studio. Opting to decamp to Europe for this extensive road-testing exercise, R.E.M. duly booked a five-night stand at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, lasting from June 30 to July 5, 2007, with advance billing referring to the shows as “public rehearsals.”
An apt choice to host what hindsight would recall as one of rock’n’roll’s legendary residencies, the venue R.E.M. left their mark on during this run of shows was already steeped in history. Having been inaugurated as Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall in 1881, the theatre was later rebranded as the Olympia in 1923, going on to present drama, opera, ballet, pantomime, and more. It even later survived a potentially catastrophic incident during a 1974 performance of West Side Story, during which when the proscenium arch across the width of the stage collapsed and the roof literally fell in.
One of Dublin’s most prestigious rock venues in more recent decades, the Olympia has since played host to some of rock’s biggest names, with David Bowie, Adele, Kings Of Leon, Radiohead, Morrissey, Blur and many more treading the boards since the 80s.
Anticipation for R.E.M.’s stint in the Irish capital was high and the band opted to bring a young film director, Paris-born Vincent Moon, on board to capture a visual record of these self-styled work-in-progress shows. The prime mover behind the Blogotheque’s Take Away shows, a web-based project recording field-work music videos of emerging alt-rock musicians and more mainstream acts such as Arcade Fire, Moon had recently come to Michael Stipe’s attention.
“I’d been making films with a lot of unknown bands, but I’d done some work with Arcade Fire, so perhaps my name had got around,” Moon recently revealed in our exclusive interview. “My first contact with them was literally an SMS saying Michael Stipe wants to call me in the next hour! Can you imagine?
“It was hard to believe that a band of such status would be so open and kind,” he continues. “Michael’s attitude was pretty much ‘just do what you want,’ and R.E.M. gave me a lot of scope and were very gracious. When they asked me to film the shows in Dublin, I took my friend and film editor, Jeremiah, with me and the whole band were just so sweet and accommodating.”
Moon’s edited highlights of R.E.M.’s five-night stand became the documentary This Is Not A Show, which appeared as both a standalone release and as a bonus DVD with the 2-CD set Live At The Olympia. However, while the primary purpose of the Dublin residency was to fine-tune the songs which would later grace Accelerate, R.E.M. dug the relative intimacy of the Olympia so much, they also took the opportunity to perform material from their critically acclaimed early IRS albums.
Much to the delight of long-term fans, R.E.M. delved deep into their catalog, and the resulting 2CD set culled a generous 39-song selection from these sprawling, career-spanning Olympia sets. The tracklist was heavy on material from the early-to-mid-80s, with the band revisiting all but one cut from their initial mini-LP Chronic Town, in addition to performing over half of Reckoning and five tunes from 1985’s Fables Of The Reconstruction. The choices were frequently surprising, with a hefty chunk of the tunes having last featured in R.E.M.’s setlist well over a decade earlier.
What Live At The Olympia made abundantly clear, however, was that magic still coursed through the veins of these talismanic early songs. “Sitting Still” and “West Of The Fields,” from R.E.M.’s full-length 1983 debut, Murmur, retained their brittle, nervy energy; Reckoning offered the Byrds-esque splendor of “Pretty Persuasion” and the glorious, melancholic sweep of “So. Central Rain,” while the Man Ray-referencing “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” from Fables…, had shed none of its original shape-shifting allure.
Elsewhere, Stipe and Co. gleefully plundered their wider catalog, performing at least one song from all their studio albums to date outside of Green, Out Of Time, and Up. Sounding enviably box-fresh, Lifes Rich Pageant and Document staples “These Days,” “Cuyahoga” and a suitably sturdy “Welcome To The Occupation” reflected R.E.M.’s burgeoning political and ecological awareness in the latter half of the 80s, while underrated mid-90s albums Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi yielded dynamic versions of lesser-vaunted gems, including “Circus Envy” and the sublime “Electrolite.”
R.E.M. repeatedly stressed that their Olympia dates were a “public rehearsal”, and much has since been made of the band’s unusually relaxed and playful onstage demeanor during their Dublin sojourn. In fact, it’s worth tuning into Live At The Olympia simply to savor Michael Stipe’s self-deprecatory between-song banter. This arguably peaks after “Sitting Still” when, in discussing fans’ online attempts at deciphering his opaque early lyrics, he reveals, “OK, it says, ‘Stipe himself has no idea what he says’ – thank you search engine!” to rapturous applause and gales of laughter. In retrospect, though, it’s obvious that, even if the band’s new songs may have arrived in Dublin in a semi-complete state of being, the nostril-flaring versions of tracks such as “Man-Sized Wreath,” “Horse To Water” and “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” demonstrate that they were all set to face their post-Olympia future with a fresh sense of purpose.
Keen to seize the moment, R.E.M. took the advice of U2’s The Edge and went on to shape what would become their 14th studio album, Accelerate, with producer Jacknife Lee. The band quickly scheduled a trio of three-week recording sessions in Ireland’s County Westmeath, in Vancouver, Canada, and on home ground in Athens, Georgia, in a bid to maintain both their focus and the energy they generated onstage at the Olympia. Commenting on the benefits of adopting this creative methodology, Stipe later told US magazine Spin, “I work really well under pressure, and the guys know that all too well… so the pace forced me to kind of spit stuff out.”
When Accelerate was released to a raft of positive reviews, and debuted at No. 2 on the US Billboard 200 in April 2008, it was apparent that R.E.M. had succeeded in their quest to capture the urgency of their Dublin shows in a studio context. Released 18 months later, on October 27, 2009, Live At The Olympia later enjoyed its own season in the sun. Fans unable to attend these already legendary shows could luxuriate in a quirkily brilliant setlist akin to an alternate greatest hits, while the media freely doled out four- and five-star reviews, and British publication Uncut very cogently declared that, on Live At The Olympia, “the punk-fueled folk-rock group that had ruled the 80s along with U2 magically reappears.”
Capturing more incendiary live performances, R.E.M. At The BBC can be bought here.