R.E.M.'s Live (Warner Bros.) is no ordinary concert release. The band has made a concerted effort to reach out to its fan base, as it re-launched the R.E.M. Dublin website as part two of its promotion of the live compilation, which is based on two shows taped from Dublin in 2005. This version lets you watch song clips, a live trailer of the DVD portion, see band photos, and click on a link to an archived original version of the site, where you can watch R.E.M.'s five-night "working rehearsals" at Olympia Theatre and read reviews or blog about them yourself.
The Athens, Georgia-based group is still in Dublin as we speak, putting the finishing touches on what will be their 14th studio album when it's released next year.
As for the release itself, if you just put your blinders on and listen to the music, it is pretty great, especially for a band that's been around for over twenty-five years and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But where there are strengths, there are also weakness.
First, the complaints: I can understand R.E.M.'s effort to make the three-disc compilation (which hit stores in mid-October) both affordable and worth every dollar. The band chose to combine highlights from its February 26, 2005 and February 27, 2005 shows from the Point Depot in Dublin into one release. However, having one of those audio discs containing only five songs is dumbfounding.
Why not split the twenty-two tracks into two eleven-track discs? Or better yet, why not make the most of the second CD by including at least one version of every song played at the two Dublin shows? Songs played but missing from this compilation include "Seven Chinese Brothers," "These Days," and "Electrolite." Most fans wouldn't have a problem with those songs being included here, unless the live versions of those and other missing tracks were so bad that the band didn't want anybody to hear them ever again.
That issue aside, the sound and production of both discs is of the highest caliber. If you didn't know or care to know any better, this sequence of twenty-two songs sounds and feels like a full show, and you might as well enjoy it as such, since R.E.M. was in top and spirited form in Ireland.
A pleasantly surprising and steady rocker from the Monster disc, "I Took Your Name" started the R.E.M. Live experience off on the right foot. "So Fast, So Numb," a rather obscure track from New Adventures in Hi-Fi soon followed. Elsewhere in the set, the audience dug Peter Buck's note-for-note perfect rendition of favorites like "Losing My Religion" and clapped in rhythm for "Drive," during which Stipe added "Bushwhacked" to the lyrics. [Don't act surprised, given Stipe's past political preferences.]
As far as band energy and dynamics are concerned, the guitars were nice and loud when warranted (ex. "Orange Crush," "One I Love") and the strings/keys were warm and cuddly when needed (ex. "Everybody Hurts," "Losing My Religion").
Bassist Mike Mills, a true pro who almost always sings in tune – as opposed to the occasional off-key yelps by Stipe – shined on several cuts and even sported a cowboy hat to sing lead vocals on the beloved early '80s fav "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville". Daniel Ryan of The Thrills made a guest appearance on guitar/back-up vocals for that performance, while Stipe took a rare turn on back-up vocals as well.
Back to the DVD side of things, the blurry visuals that came in and out of focus on "Boy In The Well" – a song from 2004's Around The Sun CD – were very cool, particularly during the melodic solo by supporting musician Ken Stringfellow (Posies, Big Star, Lagwagon). The many multiple screens at the venue that focused on each band member and their instrument were another plus – musicians (such as myself) no doubt appreciated that. The DVD viewer however, doesn't see enough of these sustained instrumental frames or close-ups; there are far more shots of Stipe and his stage antics by comparison.
Speaking of camera work, the frequent and rapid changes in visual effects and colors, as well as the unsteadiness of some of the shots can be a distraction and amounts to overproduction by video director Blue Leach (whose credits also include Depeche Mode). This DVD is supposed to be about the band first and foremost after all, not about displaying all the cutting edge visual effects one can muster into one production.
I'm not saying that was Leach's intention here, but at times it felt like there were 100 different digital video flashes per minute and that his cameras had A.D.D. The whole point of videotaping is to capture the action wherever it is, right? At several points, the focus seemed based more on imagery than on the action on stage.
Back to the pluses of the show: the Mills-lead "Cuyahoga" still rules in all its jangle rock glory, and "What's The Frequency, Kenneth," though missing Buck's signature tremolo effect otherwise features a much better guitar solo than on record. And for those wondering about new material from R.E.M., one brand new, albeit short song made it onto the release, "I'm Gonna DJ." Stipe's it's-the-end-of-the-world-themed lyrics are kind of corny, but the song rocks.
My verdict: Though the band has had a few other DVD releases over the years (see Amazon list below), Live is R.E.M.'s first ever CD/DVD live concert combo, and though it has its flaws, you won't regret buying it. When the music is this good, any complaints about production, packaging, or track exclusions seems minor by comparison.
The only advice I have for you regarding this release is that if your eyes start to hurt or get annoyed by all the visual craziness, just look away for brief moments at a time until the cameras return to steadier, more visually sane angles. Don't let these distractions ruin your overall enjoyment of the work of this legendary rock band. If all you care about is the music, you'll get your moneys worth.
The Live trailer can be seen on You Tube.
For more info on R.E.M., visit their main website.