An exercise in terror and music


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.

Buck and Stipe

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.

Playlist: Irish bands

Marco Derksen was making German and Italian playlists on iMeem today, using input from Twitterati. That set me on a quest to try and make an Irish one. Only I didn’t want to pick too obvious songs, but rather unearth some of the late 80s/early 90s bands that nobody really knew or cared about outside of Ireland. Before the internet as we know it. Before bargain flights. Before the Celtic bloody Tiger. Back when every Irish musician was washing up dishes in crappy restaurants and looking for a Green Card. And every Irish drummer played on Larry Mullen’s second hand kits.

I couldn’t find a whole lot of them on iMeem so I had to make do with what I could find, alternate tracks, etc. My own collection is mostly on vinyl. I really must get a USB record player.

As I searched online I found out a lot of the bands are making ‘come backs’ on MySpace (An Emotional Fish, Something Happens, The Golden Horde, Into Paradise, Zerra One, The Dixons, Screech Owls, In Tua Nua, Aslan) and I also found this rather marvellous website hosting the Irish punk & new wave discography.

Is it me or is making playlists on iMeem a lot of work? Search a song, click through to a song, click ‘playlist’, choose profile or group, make playlist… find next song, start over…

You’ll just have to imagine that this playlist also contains: I want too much (A House), You ain’t lovin’ me lately (Aslan), Parachute (Something Happens), Friends in Time (The Golden Horde), The Bridge (Cactus World News), Dog with no tails (The Pale) and my entire obscure Mother Records collection… perhaps I will pick up that USB record player tomorrow.

So, consider this a botched attempt at creating a playlist of the ‘best’ (read ‘available’) Irish bands.

The Church: still soldiering on

Where do rockbands go when they grow old? The small room upstairs at the Paradiso.

It’s unfair perhaps and it must smart, but The Church soldiers on. All the good bands do. Whether you perform in front of thousands or in someone’s living room, you play as if it’s your last show.

I go see young bands, I go see the big names, I go to club gigs, I – reluctantly – enter stadiums to watch the megas. And I get jaded about concerts and complain I’m not getting what I need from them, most of the time.

Young bands especially, I find, have no stage craft and no mystique. (There’s always exceptions – Arcade Fire for example have plenty of both.) I want bands and their frontmen in particular to make me believe. Believe them. Believe something. I like to see bands play because they need to, not because they want to.

I go see bands full of expectations and come away disappointed a lot of the time. So when I went to see The Church I expected them well past their heyday, coasting on past glory. Instead I watched four guys soldiering on with more fire in the belly than a lot of the new ‘The’-bands put together. Overcoming ridiculous technical problems, they played blistering versions of songs from their vast repertoire.

Steve Kilbey - The Church

Frontman Steve Kilbey, past the pretty but sporting a distinguished bearded look, still oozes star quality despite the weary, dog-tired I’m-too-old-for-this-game vibe that surrounds him. He commanded the room. How do I know this? He asked people to lay off the ciggies because they hurt his throat. Dutch people don’t like to be told ‘no’. But they obeyed. And when the pauses between songs became longer and longer while the drummer and techs tried to rid the stage of a persistent buzzing, nobody complained. Kilbey made up stories to pass time, people listened.

I left the Paradiso floating several feet above the ground and with a keen, renewed, interest in the band. I spent the weekend gorging information, properly obsessing and hungry for the chime of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper’s riffs.

Next time, give them back the big room, Paradiso.

Steve Kilbey - The Church