"This is not a show," announces bassist Mike Mills through a bullhorn at the onset of the second R.E.M. concert album in two years. Such a qualifying intro winds up better serving the veteran Georgia band than the audiences crammed into the 19th-century Dublin theater known as the Olympia. That's because the five-night Irish run in summer 2007 that now gives us the 39 songs on Live at the Olympia was intended as a string of working rehearsals before the band recorded its redemptive Accelerate album. Yet, outside of a false start here and a vocal hiccup there, nothing reflects a practicumlike environment. That's pretty remarkable considering what winds up on Live at the Olympia.
For R.E.M., the Olympia concerts were a chance to give legs to nearly a dozen tunes being readied for Accelerate. Two of them — the fuzzy psychedelic romp Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance and the jagged ballad On the Fly — were left off the record and appear here for the first time. But Live at the Olympia's ultimate charm is its ability to reconnect R.E.M. with its past as it prepared for what was then its future. Along with the wealth of Accelerate-related music is a stunning assemblage of vintage material that favors obscurities over hits.
How old are we talking here? How about four of the five songs from the 1982 debut EP disc Chronic Town? How about five tunes from the mystic, muddy 1985 ceremony that was Fables of the Reconstruction? And then there are the obscurities, like Monster's rampaging Circus Envy, New Adventures in Hi-Fi's gloom-meets-glam confessional New Test Leper or the lost soundtrack gem Romance that wound up on 1988's Eponymous.
Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and singer Michael Stipe don't attack these relics with the cracked whip immediacy they employed in the '80s when they were roughly half their current age. But there is clearly a vital electric vigor that connects the old and new
The album-opening crunch of Accelerate's Living Well Is the Best Revenge bleeds directly into 1984's chiming, churning Second Guessing. The piano/backbeat melody of the 1996 pop charmer Electrolite, which is as close as Live at the Olympia comes to hit territory, neatly prefaces the jacked-up, hook-heavy Man Sized Wreath. And in Live at the Olympia's greatest mash-up of the then and now, the propulsive Fables neo-hit Driver 8, crashes into proto-punk gusto of Accelerate's Horse to Water.
"We're R.E.M. and this is what we do when you're not looking," jokes Stipe before the 1987 nugget Disturbance at the Heron House comes into focus. Given the breadth of the drive and spirit tied into the time traveling on Live at the Olympia, maybe we should glance away more often.