Tomorrow night, the R.E.M. concert film, This Is Not a Show, will screen at the Ottobar. Shot during the band’s 2007 open rehearsals at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, it shows a band trying out new material, getting its groove back, and reconnecting, even reconciling, with its past. And that simultaneous act of looking forward/looking back did wonders for a band desperately in need of a spark.
“The Dublin shows were critical,” says Bertis Downs, R.E.M.’s longtime manager. “They helped make the next CD, Accelerate, a success on a variety of levels.”
Downs notes that the band’s process for developing new material changed drastically over the years. Early on, the band toured incessantly, wrote new songs while on the road, and auditioned them in front of live audiences. That way, they got instant feedback on the new stuff and could tweak it from night to night.
Over time, that method collapsed under the weight of international superstardom coupled with the loss of drummer Bill Berry, as the band toured less and took to tinkering in the studio. The band also inexplicably shed a regional identity that had served it well—that of bric-a-brac southern artists with visionary sensibilities, a mighty sum of thrift store components—and its subsequent records (1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and 2004’s Around the Sun) sounded fussed over and precious. The public wasn’t buying it, either, and the band hit critical and commercial lows.
So there was a lot at stake when R.E.M. took the stage in Dublin. In the liner notes to the recently released Live at the Olympia CD, singer Michael Stipe refers to it as an “experiment in terror.” Like Moon's film, the CD was culled from the Olympia performances and finds the band in stellar form. You could say “terror” becomes them, because they definitely exorcised some ghosts over the course of five nights.
But they didn’t scare themselves so much as they reconnected with the fact that, when it comes to R.E.M., the whole is far more powerful than its individual parts. No studio technology, multi-tracking, or overdub wizardry will prove more effective, and affecting, than Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills playing together in a room. The Olympia CD and film prove that. “The guys really got into playing their new songs live,” says Downs. “It was like going back to the mid-eighties, as far as the process goes.”
The songs that eventually turned up on Accelerate exude an edge of unfamiliarity and an aura of mystery that defies any notion of coasting on past glories. Check out “Man-Sized Wreath” and “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” to hear what a mighty band with something to prove sounds like. And those qualities spill over to the bounty of older material, too. I’ve never heard more compelling versions of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “These Days,” and “Pretty Persuasion.”
R.E.M. went on to record Accelerate in just nine weeks, and Downs says he’s rarely seen them so focused and determined. He adds that the burst of concentrated and creative energy in Dublin has spilled over to recording sessions now going on in New Orleans, where R.E.M. is recording its next disc. “I think they’ll be in Acceleratemode for the foreseeable future,” says Downs, “making records quicker, with more emphasis on a combo playing together, as opposed to playing parts. There’s real magic in that.”
You can see the magic happen at tomorrow night's Ottobar screening, which is sponsored by WTMD. It’s free, doors open at 6 pm, and the film starts at 7 pm.