10 Years Ago: R.E.M. Release Their First Live Album
Although constant touring in the ’80s helped build R.E.M.’s reputation as heroes of the underground, and globe-spanning treks in 1989 and 1995 cemented their role as superstars, they were 27 years into their career when they put out their first live album. While R.E.M. had released three home videos documenting various tours, they had neglected to do an audio-only concert record. This wasn’t an accident.
“We’ve been pretty … ambivalent about live records for a long time because, you know, people fix them up,” bassist Mike Mills said in 2007. “They go back in the studio and fix their mistakes and we certainly didn’t want to do that.”
In addition, live albums had earned a reputation as a stopgap release – something to fill time and maintain fans’ interest while they were between records. Through R.E.M.’s first two decades, this had never been necessary, due to both their popularity and prolific nature.
But in the 21st century, R.E.M. were slowing down. The trio of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mills (drummer Bill Berry left in 1997) took more than three years between albums. And when the new records appeared, they were no longer major media events, at least in the U.S. (Europe was another story).
In 2004-5, the group salvaged 2004’s Around the Sun – which critics, fans and even the band would consider R.E.M.’s worst album – with a huge tour that won accolades where the studio album had not. While on the Around the World tour, the guys began contemplating a live album this time around, in addition to the usual concert video.
“Part of it was, we were playing really well,” Mills said. “We had pretty much gelled as a band for the first, for the best time since Bill, our drummer, had left some years ago.”
In addition to R.E.M.’s core membership, the band toured with three other musicians. Guitarist Scott McCaughey (also of the Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows) had been filling out the group’s live sound since 1995’s Monster tour, keyboardist Ken Stringfellow (the Posies) had joined when they supported the keyboard-heavy Up, and drummer Bill Rieflin (Ministry, KMFDM) had become a live member of R.E.M. in 2003.
The simply titled R.E.M. Live was recorded from two shows in February 2005 at the Point Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. The songs that were included reflect what was, more or less, a typical R.E.M. setlist from the tour: a healthy dose of the new record (six songs from Around the Sun), some hits (“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” “The One I Love,” “Man on the Moon” and “Losing My Religion) and a variety of nuggets from the catalog (“I Took Your Name,” “Walk Unafraid,” “So Fast, So Numb”).
Listen to "I Took Your Name"
Mills took lead vocals on “(Don’t Got Back to) Rockville” – which also featured Daniel Ryan from Irish band the Thrills – and Stipe played some wild harmonica on “Bad Day.” He introduced “Cuyahoga” and “The Boy in the Well” by naming the states where the songs are set (Ohio and Tennessee, respectively) and made clear the band’s anti-Dubya stance before performing the political tunes. “I Wanted to Be Wrong” and “Final Straw.”
The album is notable for including the as-yet recorded “I’m Gonna DJ,” which would show up on 2008’s Accelerate, and “The Ascent of Man,” an Around the Sun track that R.E.M. only performed a handful of times, despite its ability to showcase Stipe’s vocal range on the “Yea-aah, yea-aah, yea-aah” chorus. According to Mills, a new presentation of material from an unpopular album was part of the motivation to finally put out a live record.
“We thought it sounded really good, it would generate some more interest, remind people that we were still doing good stuff,” Mills said. “A lot of the songs on there from the last couple of records, they were very different than they were on the record. And we like the sort of power and the feel of them live … We want people to hear them differently from the actual CD.”
Released more than two years after the concerts at which the album was recorded took place, R.E.M. Live came out in North America on Oct. 16, 2007 (a day earlier in the rest of the world). With Stipe’s post-show appearance on the cover (the “Electron Blue” streak dripping down his face), the set included two CDs of material and a DVD of the exact same tracks.
For a minor release, R.E.M. Live was a minor success, reaching No. 72 on the U.S. chart (the record went gold in Germany and hit No. 12 in the U.K.). Only two years later, R.E.M. would put out another live record – oddly enough, also recorded in Dublin. But 2009’s Live at the Olympia chronicled an experimental residency with a wild hodge-podge of selections, while R.E.M. Live hewed closer to an average concert.
All 73 R.E.M. Videos Ranked in Order of Awesomeness