Review: R.E.M. - Live

A flawed-yet-solid first ever live album from R.E.M.
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I believe I speak for the majority – and I'm damn sure I speak for all right-thinking music lovers – when I say we desire complete, single-show performances that have been minimally edited and processed.  Am I talking about live albums or chicken?

It's a simple concept, really, and the music industry continues not to get it and wonder why they can't sell records! You want to put the bootleggers out of business? Steal their business model and do it better than they do! You guys are the music business.  You should be better at selling records than anybody.  How fucking hard can this really be?  Bootleggers sell poor recordings of complete shows by popular bands and they sell them at exorbitant prices.  How do you combat this?  Sell good recordings of complete shows by popular bands at a reasonable price. 

That brings me to R.E.M.'s live two-CD/DVD set aptly titled Live.  There is much to like about this package.  They came so close to hitting a home run with it, yet there are some stupid flaws that would have been so easy to correct.  Let's get the bitching out of the way about what Live is not, and then we'll take a look at what they've presented.

Nitpick #1 – The Set : You had to see this coming after my rant about single-show releases.  This release features performances from a two-night stand in Dublin, 22 songs in all. 

The first disc has 17 songs, the second only five.  This is okay if you're going to go with one complete show, but once you've decided to combine forces you have to wonder why they didn't fill that second disc out.  By picking from two nights, they leave themselves more open to second-guessing about what they did release and what they didn't. 

Songs that didn't make the cut from these two shows include "Sweetness Follows," "Seven Chinese Brothers," "Electrolite," and "I've Been High."  I don't even have to suggest we forgo the Around the Sun songs for those mentioned gems because there was room on Disc 2.  You'll get complaints no matter what you do – a theme we'll pick up on later – but you immunize yourself from this by picking one night or the other.

Nitpick #2 — The Packaging: Wow, is this a turd! They would have had to try really hard to make this package less appealing.  Michael Stipe looks like a mutant orc from Lord of the Rings.  The five-page booklet is useless and the typeface they used is an ugly, blocky eyesore.  The F.B.I. piracy warning on the back of the package might be the most interesting visual on the packaging. 

It isn't the most important part of an album, but last week's Radiohead almost-a-release has me a little more packaging conscious.  Radiohead's no package might actually be better than what adorns this.

All right, so there are a few warts.  Is there anything nice to say about Live?  You bet your ass there is!

The sound quality is mostly excellent and Michael Stipe is far less annoying than he was on the band's Perfect Square DVD release where every song was introduced with "We hope you like it" or "This is so-and-so's favorite song."

Michael Stipe is a wonderful singer, but a peculiar performer.  Watching him on the DVD and listening to him sing, you get a feeling he loves to be center stage while at the same time wishing he could crawl underneath it.  He can command the stage with confidence or he can give way to nervous chattiness.  Throughout much of Live, Stipe is in strong voice.

I mostly hated Around the Sun, the album the band was promoting when these shows were performed, but those songs sound much better live than they did on record. 

On Live, we're reminded that Peter Buck is still in this band.  Listening to ATS you had to wonder if he'd joined founding drummer Bill Berry in retirement.  Buck's guitar infuses these songs with more energy.  "Electron Blue" is edgier and "The Ascent of Man" and "The Boy in The Well" sound more colorful and interesting.  "Leaving New York" loses a little of its delicacy but is still terrific. 

As for the oldies, "I Took Your Name" and "So Fast, So Numb" are energetic rockers that get the show off to a fast, great start.  "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" has never sounded better.  These guys have gotten tighter over the years and can pull off nearly any song in their back catalog on any night. 

Taken as a whole, Live is a good listen and well paced.  If you didn't know it was two shows combined with some good songs omitted, you'd look at this set list and hear this show and be very happy with it.  Armed with that knowledge, you can still enjoy this set even if your mind occasionally wanders as you imagine how easily this could have been so much more.