Reading Matthew’s ‘premature evaluation‘ of R.E.M.’s upcoming album Accelerate, I realised I’d never posted my thoughts on the two shows I saw the band do in Dublin last summer. I did write about it on my Dutch music blog, but even fewer people probably read that than visit over here. So here’s a quick translation.
‘This is not a show,’ says Mike Mills, addressing the crowd through a megaphone. It’s not a gig, it’s an ‘exercise in terror and music’, Stipe explains, ‘We are R.E.M. and this is what we do when you’re not looking.’
But this time we are looking. Stipe may not be wearing make up and he may be cheating with the lyrics, using printed sheets and a MacBook on an upturned flight case, it’s still R.E.M. on stage: the three members of the band, guest guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin.
We are in Dublin’s beautiful Olympia Theatre, a small Victorian venue in the middle of the city. This is the location R.E.M. has picked for five nights, trying out the songs they are recording with producer Jacknife Lee in a studio in county West-Meath.
It’s not the first time R.E.M. has picked an Irish studio to record in. ‘Uncle’ Stipe has godchildren in this country, he’s part the U2 family in the broadest sense of the word. It’s like the mafia, once you’re in, you’re in for life.
Bono and The Edge are present at the first two shows of the five night run. Stipe thanks them from the stage, for their support and ‘for keeping me grounded’. The band’s real relatives have flown in too. On the fourth night, Stipe is telling the audience a story and when he uses the word ‘blowjob’ he suddenly buries his bright red face in his hands. ‘I forgot we’ve got family members in tonight, young ones too… well, if you didn’t know that word before…’
He’s very talkative in between the songs. They play eleven new tracks every night as well as various oldies from their first couple of albums. They fit in with the new songs the best. For the first time, Stipe explains his obscure lyrics, telling us what the stories are about and shedding light on the art of songwriting. On the third night the old songs are mostly off Fables of the Reconstruction, on the fourth it’s even further back to Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning.
The tickets to these shows were exclusively sold via R.E.M.s mailing list, so the people in the audience are mostly big fans, hearts ready to burst. No hits. It’s the dream of every super fan. ‘I hadn’t heard this song in 24 years until this afternoon,’ Stipe says, holding the lyrics in his hands. We savour obscure tracks like West of the Fields, Wolves Lower, Carnival of Sorts, 1000000, Harborcoat, Second Guessing and These days.
The new songs work well in the live setting, sounding like vintage R.E.M. already, with added power courtesy of Bill Rieflin’s power drumming. In ‘Horse to water’ you feel the fire of Gravity’s Pull, and the ballad ‘Until the Day is Done’ is a gorgeous ‘King of Birds’-type ballad. The band was hurt by the slating their last album Around the Sun got in the press and determined to strike back. The songs aren’t finished yet, that much is obvious when Stipe changes lyrics on his MacBook in our presence, or when guitarist Peter Buck stops a song to explain the middle eight to bass player Mike Mills. But they’re getting there.
The band sounds great, a full rich sound, crystal clear even on the upper balcony of the venue. U2’s sound engineer of the last 30 years, Joe O’Herlihy, is manning the soundboard, doing a great job. Whether the band has managed to capture that sound on record, we’ll find out in April.