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Live at The Olympia

[Warner Bros.; 2009]

By ; November 10, 2009 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

R.E.M. released five full-length records, an EP and a b-sides collection for IRS records in the 1980’s. And even though they built their reputation as a touring band, playing small towns and major markets and just about any venue they could get a gig in, they never released an official live record for the label. Peter Buck often spoke out against it, saying that a live record should be more than just greatest hits with crowd noise and referenced The Who’s Live At Leeds as a live album that was done right. After commercial success and a major label contract, they would eventually cave somewhat and release live videos after successful tours, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they released a proper live album, 25 years into their career. But R.E.M. Live was exactly the kind of live record the band had always been against. In retrospect, it seems like an attempt to save the material from 2004’s sterile Around the Sun and prove to the world that they still mattered, at least in a live setting. But the proof wouldn’t come until the following studio album and a back-to-basics approach that began with five shows in Dublin.

In 2007, R.E.M. were at a crossroads. They had released three albums since Bill Berry left, and while some, like 1998’s Up were artistic highs, they were increasingly spending more time in the studio and getting weaker results. With the follow up to Around the Sun looming they wanted to break the mold so they booked 5 nights at the Olympia Theater in Dublin to test material in front of a live audience as recognition to the way they used to work up new songs by trying them out on tours. In order to prepare for the shows they went back to their earliest albums and looked for material that might fit in with their new direction. Most of the new material played at these concerts ended up on 2008’s Accelerate, and the double-disc Live at The Olympia contains all 39 songs played during the 5 nights, including two new songs that didn’t make the cut for Accelerate. But unlike R.E.M. Live, the only thing bloated here is the length.

Live at The Olympia is over two and a half hours long and avoids the big hits of the 90’s, as well as most of their minor hits of the 80’s and almost all of their recent work, in favor of truly a back-to-basics approach. R.E.M. mine their IRS years, playing almost the entirety of their 1982 debut EP Chronic Town along with half of Reckoning and several lesser-known songs from Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant and Document, and a few scattered songs from the Warner Brothers years. Besides the emphasis on more rock-oriented material, the most surprising thing about Live at The Olympia is just how well this older material works with the new. It’s testament to how far they had come with the pre-Accelerate material that the one dud out of all the 39 songs is a song from Around the Sun, the very album that they were fighting against making.

Live at The Olympia might just be that rare live album that Peter Buck had always talked about. It captures a legendary band that never found a reason to quit, even after they finally succumbed to recording a truly bad album, and finds them reinventing themselves by returning to what they do best. For those only familiar with the band’s 90’s material, the plethora of great early songs like “Kohoutek,” “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” and “Letter Never Sent” will provide a killer introduction to their past while also bringing you up to date with the where they are now. And for those of us that got on board early on, it’s the closest we’re likely to get to going back. But for the band, it marks a new start and a rewinding of the clock. To borrow one of their lyrics, they have begun again. And it’s great the tape was rolling this time.


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