Most live albums are fairly disposable artefacts, intended primarily as souvenirs for those who attended the shows, and usually consisting of an act's most recent album along with a few of their greatest hits from which the life has been gradually worn away through repetition.
Not so R.E.M.'s Live At The Olympia, a 2-CD compilation culled from their five-night residency at the Dublin theatre in the summer of 2007, which each night they went to great pains to explain was "not a show".
"We're R.E.M., and this is what we do when you're not looking," is how Michael Stipe introduced performances which, instead of showcasing their most recent album, featured selections from their next album, half-formed works-in-progress – a risky exercise which Stipe later describes as "this experiment in terror". Some of the songs would turn up in slightly different form on Accelerate, others – notably the aptly-titled "On The Fly" and "Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance" – would never make the cut. Interspersed among these musical foetuses is material mostly drawn from the earlier stages of their career, songs so old they rarely make the set-lists for R.E.M. shows these days. In particular, there are surging, euphoric versions of tracks from their second album Reckoning and debut EP "Chronic Town" which somehow still retain the bloom of youth. Age has clearly not withered songs like "Wolves, Lower", "Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)", "Harborcoat" and "Pretty Persuasion", thanks to the band's prolific early output shunting them fairly swiftly from their repertoire.
What comes across strongly is the cohesion of attitude behind the songs, a measure of the constancy (and accuracy) of Stipe's socio-political observations. The difference between "We are hope, despite the times" (from 1986's "These Days") and "Now, hope for the future took a pounding in the parking lot" (from 2007's "Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance") is largely a matter of hard-won experience, while the reference in "Until The Day Is Done" to fictional "notions of glory and bull-market gain" presages the stock-market collapse. This is one of the more gripping new songs, its Leslie'd organ casting brooding, sombre shadows beneath the brittle jangle of arpeggiated guitars; elsewhere, the keening guitar noise of "On The Fly" gets a good response.
The band seem in relaxed, engaging mood despite their alleged terror, with impromptu discussions of the internet, changing music formats, and lyric origins adding further intrigue to some of the most fascinating live performances you'll get to hear in these days of computerised concerts and predictable spectacle.
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