R.E.M. Live from Austin, TX

DVD review by Richard Lewis 7/12/2010

Originally broadcast as part of the long-running Austin City Limits Series on the US TV network PBS, America’s greatest band of recent times headed back South to play the bulk of the tracks from their imminent Accelerate LP. The US equivalent of Later… with Jools Holland, the gig saw the Athens, Georgia trio perform to an audience of three hundred and fifty during the South by Southwest music festival. A bare-bones DVD release, refreshingly free of extras, the gig is presented in its entirety without the practice many live concert films have of combining footage shot over several nights, masquerading as a single performance.

Whilst Stipe and co. have retained much of their cache amongst fellow musicians, critically and commercially the band have been on a gentle downward curve since the 1990s. 2008’s Accelerate LP - which comprises the bulk of the set - was a laudable attempt to stop the rot, dispensing with the over-elaborate production of recent albums, rerouting the band's sound back towards the punked-up jangle of releases such as 1987’s Document. Bland first single Supernatural Superserious (present here) wasn’t the best advertisement for the new album, but the opening double hit of new songs, Living Well is the Best Revenge and Man-Sized Wreath are proof positive that the stripped down approach has reaped dividends. More vital than the occasionally soporific tracks on recent albums these are followed by sure-fire crowd pleasers, Drive and So. Central Rain. The intimate setting works in favour of the delicate but dark ambience of the former and the old-South sway of the latter, in songs that seem slightly incongruous played in arenas.

Peter Buck appears especially re-energized on this showing, after years spent touring albums he seemingly didn’t care for. He recently divulged that he “hated” 2004’s Around the Sun saying that the group was “bored with the material”, a fact which is borne out here by the non-inclusion of any of the tracks from it. However, Buck seems to have reconnected with songs he clearly feels more positive about, as the joyous rendition of new track Hollow Man demonstrates. Another new track, the Jimmy Webb referencing Houston boasts one of the prettiest melodies the group have penned in some time, whilst Imitation of Life still sounds suspiciously like the best thing they wrote in the last decade.

Old standards Man on the Moon, Electrolite and Losing My Religion are reliably present, played with considerable aplomb well over a decade since their recording. For a band with such a huge back catalogue however the band seem unwilling to dust off equally deserving hits such as Near Wild Heaven and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite. Receiving possibly the biggest cheer of the evening, Fall On Me - introduced as “a song of ours from ten thousand years ago” - from 1986’s Life Rich Pageant hasn’t aged one iota, even if its subject matter of acid rain erosion certainly has.

With the exception of the wretched I’m Gonna DJ and the pointless It’s the End of the World as We Know It re-write Bad Day, the set is largely superb, if understandably skewed in favour of recent material. A few more tracks from their rich past would have better, but the concert finds the trio on sparkling form as they near three decades since their first single release.

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