Two years in the making, the early stages of R.E.M.'s newly-released double live album Live at the Olympia go back to early 2007 as singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and their on-stage entourage tested out new tunes for their 2008 studio album Accelerate. They set up camp at the ornate Olympia Theatre in Dublin and performed over five nights of "rehearsals" in front of exuberant capacity crowds comprised of fan-club members, friends, family, and mega-fans.
"It was an experiment in terror," Buck describes the concert series in a press release. "We were just trying to do something we hadn't done before, which meant there was no relaxing during the set. Every second we were playing something we didn't know all that well. Which was kind of good — there were all kinds of terror elements going on during that show."
The two-CD set, produced by Accelerate studio captain Garret "Jacknife" Lee (Green Day, U2, The Hives), features 39 songs that capture the best of the five "working rehearsals" at the Olympia. Live at the Olympia hit the streets this week.
Fortunately, it doesn't seem like Buck or any of his bandmates were too terrified to genuinely rock out, hammer the rhythms, strike the best accents, and create a positive vibe on this 39-song collection. In fact, they seem as giddy as they were back in their college radio days — eager, gracious, and uninhibited. They have a cool safety net here in two teammates — guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin. These two solid collaborators enhanced the band's increasingly creative mix on Accelerate and here as well.
In particular, McCaughey's guitar stylings nicely complement Buck's arpeggiated guitar style. Rieflin came aboard as R.E.M.'s timekeeper in 2004. Luckily for the band and its fans, his thumping style and keen sense of tasteful syncopation resembled the band's original drummer Bill Berry's unique style. Maybe he best understood how to replicate much of that style with his own, unlike Berry's first replacement, Joey Waronker, who flailed a bit more wildly on occasion. Rieflin nails most of Berry's key fills, signature accents, and unfancy crescendos — from the earliest R.E.M. songs, like "1,000,000" and "Wolves, Lower (from Chronic Town) to "Cuyahoga," "Feeling Gravity's Pull" and "Maps and Legends" (from Fables of the Reconstruction).
Mills sings well across the board, and his slightly distorted bass tone grinds with an aggressive attack that fans haven't heard since the old Rickenbacker 4003 days.
Despite his murky reputation as a moody, shy, ambivalent, mumbling front man with an eccentric streak, Stipe's on good behavior and in fine spirits on all of Live at the Olympia. "Good evening," the singer announces in the opening second of lead-off track "Living Well is the Best Revenge" (from Accelerate). With a scratchy bullhorn, he adds the monotone disclaimer, "This is not a show. This is not a show." It's a revved-up rendition that bounces right into a double-shot from their 1984 album Reckoning — a killer version of "Second Guessing" and an aggressive rendition of the twistingly melodic "Letter Never Sent" (after which, a fan hollers, "We love your 'ohs!'" at Stipe; he responds, '"What? You love my clothes?").
In other asides and song introductions, Stipe tells brief stories about family, and friends, explains the lyrical and musical origins of some of the songs, and even gives his bandmates a few little jokes. Little mistakes, like the false start of "Disturbance at the Heron House" (from 1987's Document) become fun highlights and triumphant recoveries between tracks, rather than embarrassing bloopers.
This healthy mix of old and new material — and the balance between serious musical delivery and lighthearted banter — really suits the band these days. Not to diminish the band's work on the road and in the studio over the last 20 years or so, but Live at the Olympia is a fantastic back-to-basics rock sound that captures R.E.M.'s strongest elements.