R.E.M., “At the BBC”

R.E.M.
At the BBC
CRAFT
8/10

One of the great unsung losses of R.E.M.’s 2011 breakup is the onstage banter from frontman Michael Stipe, who was always equally appreciative, anxious, and acerbic on the mic. Thankfully, the new box set At the BBC, which contains eight CDs’ (and one DVD’s) worth of live performances spanning 1984 through 2008, captures some of the best of it. For example, at a 2004 performance at St James’s Church in London, Stipe asks the music journalists in the audience to raise one hand. He then half-pleads and half-threatens, “If the show tonight is reviewed with the title ‘Losing My Religion’…”

R.E.M. released fifteen studio albums over thirty-plus years, establishing themselves as a dependably fantastic live band along the way. The second half of their career is especially well represented here, with a wealth of material from the mid-’90s onward that checks off a few UK badges of honor for musicians. There’s their twenty-one-song Glastonbury headlining set from 1999, during which Stipe proclaims, “This is your life, this is right now, and I hope you’re there, because I am. Hello and good evening.” (The performance of “Sweetness Follows” in that set is stunning.) There’s a 1998 four-song Peel session. There’s a show from their 1995 Monster tour at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes. One of the box set’s brightest gems is a 1984 gig at Rock City in Nottingham, essentially a showcase for R.E.M.’s first two (and possibly best) albums, 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning, with standouts like “Talk About the Passion,” “Pretty Persuasion,” and “Radio Free Europe” coming one punch after the other.

Simply put, R.E.M. is one the best bands that America has ever produced, and, appropriately, At the BBC is an embarrassment of riches. If you’re a fan—casual or rabid—you’ll love it. If you’re old enough that you didn’t like R.E.M. in 1995, it probably won’t change your mind. And if you’re young enough that you don’t really know who R.E.M. is—fair, because their breakup was seven years ago already—you should do yourself a service and change that. To this end, At the BBC is an impressive primer very much worth your time. Even if you’re a longtime listener, hearing the opening mandolin of “Losing My Religion” performed live for an intimate BBC Sessions audience in 1991 isn’t something that will ever get old.

And if you want to feel like they’re still around now, just put on the end of “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” from that 1984 Rock City show and listen to Stipe address the audience, to rousing applause: “We’re R.E.M. We’re here from Georgia, which is in the southernmost part of the United States. We’re not proud of our president. We’re sorry.” He then says that the heel came off of his boot and wonders if anyone has a size nine-and-a-half shoe he could borrow.

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