Peter Buck really loves that song. In fact, Buck really loves a lot of the songs on the new record. He uses the phrase no less than six times in his extensive liner notes to R.E.M.’s Live at the Olympia. Other times, he varies his writing with “really like” and “interesting to play” but after a few short lines, you’ve got the picture: This is something they loved doing.
It’s reflected in the pictures that grace the album, the smiling band members banging out barely rehearsed songs for an audience full of fans. There’s something telling in the way that the camera captured them in full flight, the impact it has when you first open the book. They look happy in a way fans haven’t seen in a long time.
Live at the Olympia is a representation of nearly thirty years of work. Listening to the record, you can almost hear all those late nights playing nowhere bars, the years spent on tour, the lifetime of friendship and all the hardships in between.
The record starts with an earthquake, “Living Well’s the Best Revenge,” the song that heralded a new direction for R.E.M. and Accelerate. It’s rough, fast, and loud, shaking the room and completely killed my car’s speaker on the drive back from picking it up. If it hadn’t, surely the incredible “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” would’ve. Cranking the cd in the car, that was the only time I’ve ever been thankful for Broad Street traffic.
Despite being a live recording, Olympia is a very personal record for all parties involved. Buck describes in the notes how he and Mills sat down and listened to their old albums, rediscovering little gems along the way that they worked into the Dublin rehearsals. There are songs on here that would never have made it onto a regular compilation. Stuff like “New Test Leper” and “Circus Envy” make their first appearances in years, making all of us want dig out Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi for another listen.
It’s incredibly hard to sit back and get into the album and not relive the moment when you first heard a particular song. Older fans may remember hearing “Auctioneer” and “West of the Fields” live some 20 years ago. One friend recounted to me the first R.E.M. concert he saw when they played “Kohoutek.” It was a memory he held very close. The same goes with my circle of friends and the stunning “Electrolite.” Putting on the piano-centric Olympia version brought back thoughts of late nights watching set lists appear from the tour and all of us watching the video together across four countries and six time zones. These songs hold incredibly powerful memories for fans and to hear them get special treatment is one of the best things that could happen.
R.E.M.’s always had exciting concerts and cuts like the electrifying “Wolves, Lower” only prove that the band hasn’t lost any live energy. In fact, some songs sound better now than they ever did, a side effect of having a long time to practice. A few decades of playing “So. Central Rain” can do that. Throw in songs like “Gardening at Night” and “Romance” and you have a very interesting, if scattered, roadmap of the musical journey of R.E.M. as a band.
Stipe’s voice has gotten lower and more gravelly with age but he’s still capable of hitting the high notes in “Kohoutek,” filling all the ooo’s and oh’s and ah’s of songs with just as much meaning and inflection as real lyrics. Mills’ bass seems to come and go within the mix (strange) but when his backing vocals hit, they come with a sweet-sounding vengeance. His strength has been providing enough sound melodically to allow Buck to not feel forced to create more sound. It’s a delicate balance but Buck takes on the challenge, tearing a hole in your heart in the first notes of “Until the Day is Done.”
The unsung heroes of Olympia are the auxiliary musicians Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin. They’re not official members of R.E.M. but may as well be. Rieflin takes Berry’s original drum patterns and keeps true to the spirit of the song while adding just a bit of his own stylings. McCaughey has been with the band almost as long as Berry was, his years of playing alongside Buck in various bands giving an otherwise loose performance a tighter feel. McCaughey’s vocals with Mills’ on songs like “Harborcoat” fit perfectly. But it’s his slide guitar work on “On the Fly” that takes the track to a whole new level.
The between-song chatter is charming, sprinkled with a few insights into Stipe’s lyrical work and a lot of fan involvement. Whoever protested “Man Sized Wreath” being cut, thank you. The band has called Live at the Olympia an olive branch to fans. It’s not an olive branch. It’s practically the whole grove!
There’s a great deal of joy surrounding this record. Olympia acts both a nod to the past and a look to the future, shared with the people who were there from the beginning and all of us who have joined in along the way. Despite everything that has happened in the past few years, or perhaps because of it, R.E.M. have found themselves stronger as a band. This is not a memorial to who the band used to be. It’s a celebration of who they are.
R.E.M. Live at the Olympia. This one is for the fans. This one is for the band. This one is for us. And you can bet that we all “really love that song.”