“Celebration of your teenage nation.”
It’s hardly news (well, to obsessives), but the band’s stand in Dublin’s tiny Olympia Theatre has been marked by a profound “return to roots” aesthetic. The songs are much more straight-forward rock numbers, and the electronics found on the previous three albums are absent. One can only hope that the band will keep this focused, stripped-down approach when they return to finish the record, as this material is some of the most profoundly interesting – and energetic – of the band’s past decade.
On July 5th, I got to see the final “live rehearsal” with my friend Charles. What follows is a blow-by-blow record of the evening that features both R.E.M. and the opener – Mundy. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and that it will help to hold together the thin fabric that is memory. Please forgive any mistakes, as this review is largely the product of sleeplessness, air travel (and copious air delays), and a horrible, horrible day of missed appointments, missing documents, and travel complications. I would, of course, love to hear from anyone with a recording, or a clearer memory. Thank you!
(Note: Skip on down to 8.06 for the start of Mundy, and 9.23 for R.E.M. I’ll ramble a bit about the pre-show while you do…)
6.40 – We begin queuing in a back-alley entrance. There are about a dozen people here by the time we arrive. I fear that ninjas might use this opportunity to steal my ticket, and resolve to sacrifice my friend’s life to keep it.
7.00 – The doors to the alleyway open. Charles and I run up the ten sets of stairs to the top of the theatre (general admission). We’re sitting in the front-row (center) of the upper circle. We are informed that there will be no standing – at any cost! (We’re up here.)
7.06 – There are a handful of tour cases on stage. A keyboard/organ, array of pedals, drums, stack of amps, and, of course, plastic dinosaurs. I love these dinosaurs. Honestly, I wish I knew more about them…
7.16 – Suspense! What obscure song would you like to hear R.E.M. perform? For me, I’d have to go with either “Perfect Circle” or “Time after Time (annelise).” Charles, at first, wants “Falls to Climb,” but says that he’d rather “Disturbance at the Heron House.” It’s wonderful to know that you’re in for something special, isn’t it?
7.21 – It would seem that there’s a kit making the rounds, these days. It reads: “In Case of Pre-Show…” – Obscure pseudo-psychedelia seems to be the order of the evening. Do they really think they need to lower expectations?
7.28 – Flashes everywhere (why do I follow the rules?!), and I’m sad. Charles heads off to hunt beverages while I watch the sound engineer at work… interestingly, you can see into the backstage area. It looks like any old backstage. Weird.
7.52 – Someone seems to be editing the setlist. Interesting.
8.06 – The opening act – Mundy – begins his set. The first song is “Drive,” (not that one!) and it has a chimey, cabaret sort of a sound. He points out that it has been a long time since he “did support and the place was full when he got there.” He is dressed in a vest, blue jeans, chucks, and a t-shirt. All standard issue.
8.09 – I am bored, and so I take the time to notice that all of the road cases say “Athens, GA.” This is nice.
8.10 – “Head of the heels.” (N.B. All Mundy titles may be a bit off, as I couldn’t be bothered. Sorry, Mundy fans!) – Is Mundy the Pete Best of Deep Blue Something? He could be.
8.14 – There are seventy-four dinosaurs and a hydra, by my count.
8.15 – “Gin and Tonic Sky” – Some members of the crowd seem to know this one. What color would such a sky be, do you reckon?
8.17 – I have just noticed that there are two megaphones next to the drum kit. My geek heart swoons.
8.20 – Mundy, like most people, seems to be enamored of Bob Dylan. He also points out that he first got a cassette copy of Green when he was 14. The song is “90,000 miles away from harm.” Mundy has committed more egregious offences to rhyming than Dave Pirner. Consider: “The air it tickles… have a breakfast of ham and pickles.” Ouch.
8.24 – Who knows the title? It has the lyric: “Love is a casino, and only God knows the winners.” He’s earnest, but he should stop rhyming. For the next four minutes, I will dream of Al Pacino and Moses shooting the breeze.
8.28 – This song can be had for free on MySpace. It’s called “Crazy World.” The crowd sings along a bit, and this is Mundy’s high point.
8.30 – His chucks are very clean. Does it make me a dork that I think that means he’s inauthentic? I think it might. He has just informed us that he “wish[es] there was more words.” (This, after repeating “oh my my my my July” about six times.) So do we, Mundy – so do we.
8.32 – “Lynchpin.” It’s a ballad for “Irish boys who have no one to talk to…” I think it’s a complicated system of innuendos. I have studied English for too long.
8.36 – I wake up as the song bridges to “There She Goes Again.”
8.37 – Mundy is honored to be here, and this is his last song.
8.42 – Mundy goes all Pete Townshend on us. In hindsight, I suppose that he has conceived of many of his songs as sing-a-longs. He might have said.
8.43 – The backdrop changes to read “This is not a show.”
8.45 – A stagehand sets a case on its side at the front, and brings out Michael’s music stand.
8.57 – A roadie has just gone past wearing a miner’s helmet. They may well be going spelunking. (I’ll avoid the obvious reference to diving in the band’s back catalog. You are welcome.)
9.12 – Setup for Michael’s laptop commences.
9.23 – “Hello, Good evening!” Michael’s laptop and its familiar “Impeach” sticker are the first things I see. He’s wearing glasses, and looks youthful and casual. (Indeed, his glasses, tie, and coat combine to create an adorable portrait.) The band launch into a new song: “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” (1) – WOW! It rocks like Document. I am already full of encouragement.
The song contains the lyrics “Like a lamb to slaughter” and “The Gospel according to Who?” This will be the first of many subtle (and not so subtle) complaints about the American right-wing. It’s been said before, by many, but this band really is best when things are at their worst. Mike Mills is singing backup, and it’s wonderful. Of all the things the band have changed, in the past few years, I’ve always been least happy about the absence of Mr. Mills. The song moves on to the lyric: “History will set me free.” Awesome.
9.27 – Another new one – “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance”- that sounds a little bit like something by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The guitar part, at any rate. More lovely backing from Mike Mills. Michael sings about a “call from the future” before telling us he “doesn’t care.” Incidentally, he keeps checking his laptop. This sounds considerably like vintage R.E.M. (Document meets Monster).
9.31 – Michael raises a pint to us. “Thank you so much for participating in our grand experiment… in the event that you’ve wandered in off the street… This is R.E.M., and this is what we do…when you’re not looking! (A clip plays a computerized voice that informs us “This is not a show.”)” Michael explains that coming to Dublin was an alternative to the band sequestering itself in Athens, GA. “The benefit to you is that you get to sit through random material…thank you for not leaving.” (HA!) Michael then goes on to explain that he promised the band a twelfth new song for tonight, but that it’s just not ready. This is song number four on the setlist found on the back of the t-shirt. (2)
9.34 – “Are there any questions at this point?” “We want to hear that song!” – one audience member exclaims. “Trust me: no you don’t.” Michael also points out that he had unwittingly written part of the song from “the popular American show Friends.” After some fiddling, the band manage to reproduce this. Much laughter, all around. He also informs us that he finished the song “Houston” five days ago, and that we’ll hear it later. He says it’s a beautiful song at 1:54.
9.38 – He’s still talking! Awesome! Michael doles out thanks to Bertis and all of the Office Staff (who are here, tonight).
9.40 – Michael offers us “olive branch #1.” It is “Welcome to the Occupation.” Encouragingly for fans of older material, you can really hear the similarity between this and the new stuff. The band has stopped running away from its past, and the effect is stunning. Digressing slightly, I already have a feeling that the new album might be their best in a decade. They seem whole again, after trying so hard to move away from themselves after New Adventures. This isn’t repetition: it’s evolution. Finally.
Michael goes on to explain after the song that it had to do with the Iran-Contra affair, and that he says “to this administration… and to that one… take your Iran-Contra affair and stick it where…”
9.45 – “Mr. Richards.” The vocal rhythm really reminds me of “Hope” from Up, but the sound is considerably more full than anything from that time. Mike Mills is on backup, again. It has a heavy groove with lots of distortion, a steady, insistent bass… but it’s bright overall. The song is, Michael says, about an “anonymous” member of the Bush administration. “Mr. Richards your decision… pay attention… pay attention…” He also offers: “You’re mistaken if you think we’ll just forget…” Again, I love that the band is going for it. Controversy be damned (or, indeed, encouraged).
9.50 – Mike Mills asks a member of the audience to hand up the Georgia State Flag that they’ve brought. He points out that its incorporation of the Confederate Flag is hopelessly out-of-date, and that they’ve since corrected the mistake. The audience member hands it up, and Mike puts it away. Awesome.
9.51 – Michael points out that “some early songs had words that repeated a lot,” because he “wasn’t much of a lyricist.” The band then launch into “Pretty Persuasion.” It’s awesome, and sounds as sharp and vital as ever. Michael seems to recognize this, as he has a very happy, confident look about him.
9.55 – “Houston.” A bit of a switch. Mike moves over to the piano/keys, Scott takes over the bass, and Peter grabs an acoustic. Some lyrical snippets: “It’s a new day today, and the coffee is strong,” and “Galveston seems like that song that I love.” It’s a bit like an Automatic for the People track. The writing seems a bit like Michael’s later style, and privileges a more narrative, third-person tone.
9.57 – “The Worst Joke Ever.” Michael explains that he’s the worst at telling jokes, and that he and Pete love the same terrible joke. After some prodding, he starts to tell it: “Did you hear the one about the agnostic insomniac dyslexic?” An audience member spoils the joke, and Michael doesn’t move on. He tells us, instead, that the joke in the song was purposefully designed to be an “incredibly bad horrible joke.” After a touch more prodding, we finally get the punch line: “He stayed up all night wondering “Is there a dog?” “Is there a dog?””
Michael sips his pint, and explains that he needs to drink before this one as “it’s fucking hard to sing.” He also mentions that they’ve only ever done it twice. Shivers, people.
10.05 – Michael explains that the next song started life as a B-side, and that after making that pronouncement earlier in the week he had a chat with his good friend Bono who helped him to conclude that there’s no such thing as B-sides any more, and that they’re all A-sides. Therefore, this is an A-side. It’s called “Man-Sized Wreath,” and it’s a bit rock, glam, funk number. It features more backup from Mike Mills.
Somewhere during this song, Michael made a variety of hand signals. One of them was Mr. Spock’s. I’m sure of it. It was hot up by those lights, but not that hot! It’s got a very catchy refrain: “Throw it on the fire, throw it in the air. Kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care.” It’s a really light-hearted track on first listen, and it reminds me of “I’m Gonna DJ.”
10.09 – “West of the Fields.” And it hasn’t lost a touch. This is R.E.M., folks, and this is what they’ve always done.
10.12 – “Any Questions?” Someone asks about the impeach sticker: “What’s it mean? Are you kidding?” Michael poses with his laptop and invites us to take a picture and print it large. He then goes on to explain that he remembered during the process of these rehearsals that you don’t have to rhyme every line. (Hear that, Mundy?) He then goes on to critique an Internet transcription of the lyrics – “The animals, how strange. Try, try to stick it in.” – and points out that there’s no way that his drug-addled teenage brain could have ever conceived of such a ridiculous line.
10.16 – “On The Fly.” – Michael tells us that it’s one of the first new songs that they wrote after Around the Sun. It features the return of the steel guitar (as played by Scott), and is a slow, jangly piece. Lots of introspection: “You said that loving me is falling off a log. You always had a way with words.” – “It’s easy to laugh off, it’s easy to brush aside. We’re living our lives on the fly… and I just happened by.”
The first verse yields to a massive burst of feedback, and this is one of the few moments where the lack of polish seems to show. The second verse kicks in, and Peter’s arpeggios remind me of Neil Young. “God knows what I’m looking for, God knows what I am… even Jesus had his reservations… I won’t be doubting you again.” There are some positively beautiful harmonies in this song, and I’m so in love with the band for returning to multi-vocalic orchestration.
10.21 – “I think that was the best one yet…” – The band launch into “Romance,” which sounds really beefy. Afterwards, he goes on to discuss how Peter thought, for twenty-five years, that the song contained the line “Pasolini pays the bills.”
10.26 – Of course, the band haven’t performed it in twenty-five years, so…
10.28 – Another new one. Michael informs us that there’s no real chorus, and that the one they’re using will likely end up being the middle six. The song makes me think simultaneously of Green and Monster.. It’s like a fuzzy, green monster, I guess. (Hm.) It invites us to “enjoy yourself with no regrets!” And it also tells us that it’s a “celebration of your teenage nation.”
10.31 – Michael informs us that “this is a song from 1986, I believe.” (Was that an intentional pun?) “It pulls together a couple American themes and slams them into one word…Cuyahoga.” I notice that like many in the audience, Mike Mills is singing along to himself (in-between his parts, of course!). Cool. On “Saving face,” Michael briefly gives a middle finger. Heh.
10.36 – “Accelerate” – Another one that sounds like a beefy Green track. “No time to question the choices I made…” A fitting lyric for a band that seems to be rushing forward, without worrying about its age or definition. Indeed, as I write this, the refrain “Accelerate!” kicks in. The song uses a tempo similar to the band’s earlier days – it’s very post-punk. Scott has a backing vocal part that reminds me of “Animal.”
10.40 – “Horse to Water” It’s hard and fast with a three-part vocal. The frenetic pace urged on by the jangling guitar. The song is an endurance run for Michael, but recalls the band at its most urgent. Awesome.
10.43 – The encore watch begins.
10.45 – Michael raises a drink to us, again. Another new song. (Notes have been lost to time and the carelessness that some exhibit with beverages. I’m the worst reporter ever.)
10.49 – Did some jackass just yell “Freebird?!” Yes, yes they did. Thanks, ingrate. People: stop yelling out requests. This isn’t a show, remember? Also, it’s kind of rude to do when Michael is talking to you. You’re here at a very special gig, and you’re acting like it’s Reel Big Fish. For the love of God, no one will ever play “Freebird” just because you asked. Seriously. Thank you.
Actually, the beautiful thing was that everyone kept “sshhh”-ing the people who did these things. En masse, and simultaneously. Very cute.
10.50 – “Auctioneer” is vital and intense, just like all of the other early material.
10.54 – Michael informs us that the band is going to do a request… and, no, they’ve already chosen the request. An audience member asks whose request it is, and we’re told that it’s Bertis’ request. “And he better not be on his fucking cell phone, because we’re about to do it…” But before that, there’s a bit of an exposition about songwriting. Michael tells us that this is the first song they ever wrote that he felt like he’d become a songwriter. (How’s that for syntax?) He apologizes for saying it lots in interviews, but “the first thirty songs they ever did were more exercises in songwriting than anything else.” He says he’s telling us this because he prefers talk shows to magazines, as we can see all the nuances.
And, with that, an awesome, by the numbers, “Gardening at Night.”
11.00 – I think someone just stepped on a smurf, as a high-pitched warble has just come from the lower balcony. We are all confused.
11.01 – Michael thanks all of us, and then the band begin “Until the Day is Done.” The song is very much like something from Automatic – acoustic and with subdued percussion, the song tell us that “The country’s in ruins…” Getting a little further in, it has the spaciousness of something from New Adventues in Hi-Fi. There’s a soaring, introspective chorus tied to accusatory, wry verses. Interestingly, Michael doesn’t refer to his lyrics at all. He has for every other song, but not this one. Either he’s inventing some, or this one is quite dear to him. He even has his eyes closed tight. Beautiful.
11.08 – Last call for questions. Many people ask after the dinosaurs, but are drowned out by some bonehead who has failed to realize the weight of his decision. The question we get is: “What are you doing, tonight?” Michael answers, but notes that it’s not a very interesting question. It wasn’t. Thanks, creep. If anyone tells me about the dinosaurs, I’ll buy them a cookie.
11.10 – “I’m Gonna DJ.” It’s intense and energetic. The vocals seem to have filled out a bit since the last tour, as they now feature three-part harmonies. Very cool.
11.12 – A bow, and then the band are off. Mike returns, and raises a pint, closing the evening with a simple: “SlÃ¡inte.”
For more, check out: R.E.M. in Dublin. And hey: if you see better videos/recordings, let me know! That offer of a cookie stands!
- A note about these: I could easily go dig them up on Remdublin.com, or YouTube, but I wanted to keep a sense of memory and authenticity. While I’m inserting audio clips, I’m going to rely on other people’s memories of the titles. Quirky, but that’s why no one pays me to do this! (Oh, wait…) [Back]
- A related introduction from night two can be found here. [Back]