In an MTV documentary that tracked the career of R.E.M. up to and including the release of their 1991 album Out of Time, bassist Mike Mills spoke about how important it was for the band early on to play live anywhere and everywhere they could. It was, he said, how they bonded as musicians and friends, while helping build the core fanbase that would launch them instantly into the upper reaches of the college rock circuit.
Those days also cemented the group’s belief in the power of a great live performance. it was a value that helped usher their steady rise from critical darling to arena-sized success story. From the small venues where they made their name in and around Georgia to the huge festival dates they enjoyed toward the end of their 30-year run together, that ideal never wavered.
The recently released boxed set R.E.M. At The BBC is the ultimate reflection of that group sensibility regarding live performance. An eight-CD and one DVD collection, this material was culled from the vast archives of the U.K.-based TV and radio company, including radio sessions and appearances on Later…with Jools Holland. The cream of this set is the five full concerts captured at different junctions of the group’s existence. All are near perfect, breaking down with clarity how tightly controlled they approached live performance and elucidating how R.E.M. evolved from the jangle and fidget of Chronic Town to the agitated rock and lucid beauty of Accelerate.
The most obvious marker of the band’s shifting ideals and creativity is in the vocals of front man Michael Stipe. Over the course of these discs, we hear him become a full-fledged rock star. Or at least we sense how he started to understand what it meant to be an entertainer rather than just a singer. As impassioned as his vocals often get on the recording of R.E.M. playing Nottingham’s Rock City in 1984, the volume and dynamics of the band (especially the backing vocals of Mills and drummer Bill Berry) carry him forward. At the time, he preferred to stand stock still, clutching his mic stand tightly.
Later sets find him coming out from behind the long tresses of the Reckoning years. He introduces the songs with charm and a mordant wit (nearly all the material played during their often-vicious 1995 performance here is introduced with some variation of “Here’s another song”). And the toned muscle of his voice quickly started to fan into a blaze. Stipe learned to love the stage and adapt his performance to the needs of larger audiences and venues. The whole band became all the better for that knowledge.
The set isn’t a complete picture of R.E.M.’s full evolution as it skips over the post-Reckoning years when the band found their first blushes of true mainstream success with their fifth studio album Document, as well as the massive breakthrough of 1989’s Green. By the time we meet up with the band again in 1995, they’d ballooned to a sextet with the addition of multi-instrumentalists Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey and wanted to put songs like “Shiny Happy People” and “Stand” well behind them. They were more concerned with making a righteous noise, turning the pensive “Drive” into an almost agit-funk workout inspired by their former tourmates Gang Of Four and putting some lightning into otherwise folksy tunes like “Losing My Religion” and “Half A World Away.”
By the time we meet up with the band in the late ‘90s and ‘00s, they’ve accepted their fate as elder statesmen of the indie rock scene and survived the departure of founding member Bill Berry. There’s a calm and surety to even the most uptempo tunes from R.E.M.’s past and present throughout these later live sets, and a lightly layer of grit has been applied to Stipe’s voice. The singer pushes his pipes hard at these gigs, but his passion never seems to flag. The touches of raggedness that creep in feel more honest and welcome than worrisome.
Behind him, no matter the era, venue or lineup, the rest of R.E.M. remains as reliable as ever. Mills and guitarist Peter Buck, especially, do exactly what any great musician should: staying true to their core sound while applying new textures as their abilities got stronger. The grungy bluster of the Monster-era tracks and the sweep of the material from Around The Sun still bear the familiar chime and sweet ardor that made their first releases so great. R.E.M. simultaneously moved far beyond the pizza parlors and dive bars of their younger days while remaining there in spirit.
Hear a live set by R.E.M. from 1983 below: