by Mark Saleski
When R.E.M. toured on the Murmur record, they were the darlings of college radio. That’s certainly where I first heard them. “Radio Free Europe” and “Catapult” were getting a lot of airplay, and the band received some enthusiastic press reports (I’m guessing Rolling Stone). When I picked up my copy of Murmur, I just about wore the thing out in the first week. It had jangly elements of The Byrds, but a direct comparison was unfair as R.E.M. were clearly something new.
Then the announcement came down that R.E.M. were to play at the University of Maine. I was psyched in that way that’s only possible when you’re a 19 year old guy. Here’s what I remember about the show: first opening band was B. Willie Smith (they started with a cool R&B take on “My Baby Does The Hanky Panky”), second warmup was Let’s Active (can’t remember much about them except that Mitch Easter did a solo guitar segment that featured a version of “Classical Gas”), R.E.M. started with Michael Stipe unable to look out at the crowd (take a look at the first minute or so of the accompanying DVD… that has certainly changed!), the guy standing next to me stopped his slamdancing (I’m not kidding) long enough to run to the side of the floor for a lovely projectile vomit session … he came back 30 seconds later to continue his gyrations, Mike Mills’ backing vocals were amazing, as was Peter Buck’s guitar.
That’s about it. That … was a long time ago.
When R.E.M. exploded to the superstar level many years later, I can’t say that I was surprised. It was pretty easy to see the talent and creativity even in the early songwriting. It did feel a little strange though, to see a band that I thought of as my own little secret grow into a worldwide sensation.
It has been similarly weird to see R.E.M.’s transformations later in their career, especially post-Monster. No, especially post-Bill Berry. I didn’t know what to think of Up and really liked Reveal. And Around The Sun? Let’s just say that I was sure that it was their swan song. That’s not what I as hoping for, but that lackluster collection of songs (“Leaving New York” excepted) sure wasn’t encouraging.
Neither was the announcement that R.E.M. was to release a live album from the Under The Sun tour. In support of the new record, the set was bound to be Around The Sun-heavy. Why? I had read that R.E.M. themselves weren’t so fond of Around The Sun. So, why the release? I’ve heard a live recording of R.E.M. performing material from their upcoming album. The new stuff was fabulous. Why not take a chance and premiere the new songs with a live record?! So much for the fan to worry about.
I don’t have an answer for the motive (not that it matters), but as it turns out, this particular recording is not the clunker I was expecting. The Around The Sun tunes have much more life in them, especially “Electron Blue” and “Leaving New York.” Though there are no big surprises (like something from Murmur! What the hell guys??!!), they do pick and choose from around their career dial: “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” (Reckoning), “Drive” and “Man On The Moon” (Automatic For The People), “Orange Crush” (Green), “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “I Took Your Name” (Monster), and a bunch of others.
All of that said, this set isn’t exactly a must-have. I can’t quite put my finger on why. As much as I’m glad to have a live document of Peter Buck’s amazing guitar work, there’s something missing. Is it that I’ve heard those new, unreleased tunes? Is it that they didn’t play “Radio Free Europe?”
Is it that I’m not 19 anymore?