by Eamonn Ryan
I had mixed feelings when I took the first calls indicating that REM were considering coming to Dublin to rehearse and possibly even do some gigs at the Olympia. If it went ahead, it would be my job to advance all the details with the REM tech guys, tour manager, production assistants and then run the show-days, alongside the band and crew.
I had some previous form with REM. They were one of the seminal bands from my younger days, and I can still remember hearing Chronic Town and Murmur for the first time. Those records changed the way I thought about listening to and making music. I was at the SFX show in (gulp) 1984. I even travelled to London to see them play their first shows at The Marquee. The bands I played in back then developed a neat line in REM covers. In short, I had it bad for them!
However, like many other devotees, I lost touch with them over the years. The ‘Shiny Happy People’ era was a bridge too far for me, and after that, it seemed they had simply lost their way. The albums over the last few years seemed increasingly vague and purposeless, and I suspect even the band themselves thought the same thing.
And there was another reason I had reservations about being closely involved with REM at this time. My experience in working with bands who decide to play back-to-basics shows in venues that are small by their standards, is that while the idea is attractive to them in principle, in practice it does not work so well.
When bands downsize from arena to small theatre scale, many of the things they are used to having around them become impractical; PA systems, lighting rigs, even catering set-ups, all have to revised, simplified to fit the smaller space.
And of course the audience are suddenly up close and personal again, which can be a shock to many acts who have spent years playing across the yawning space of pit barrier/security cordon that goes with the bigger shows. Very few bands and very few technical teams are able to deal well with the limitations of the new smaller environment. In short, they like the idea but not the reality.
I took a deep breath and threw myself in the deep end, expecting a very meticulous and exhausting examination of every minute detail. However, from the start, the advance was not like any other show like this I have looked after. It became clear from early on that there would be a couple of days of set-up time for the REM crew, and then a run of rehearsals, played live in front of sold-out audiences.
The PA would be the house PA, with minimal changes. The sound desk out front would be the band’s own, but apart from that, they were happy to use the house system as is: no additions, no upgrades. The venerable Joe O’Herlihy, who normally looks after sound for local outfit U2, came on board.
The conversation on lighting was almost funny in its brevity; again, house system only. No additions. To put this in context, even the lowliest touring act will usually insist on something being changed or extras being rented in. But this time, nothing extra needed.
With bands of the stature of REM, I can usually expect to be dealing with assistants, aides, more assistants, all of whom generate reams of spreadsheets detailing every possible eventuality: there was none of this.
And so it continued. There was a day of set-up for the crew, who hadn’t seen most of the band’s equipment since the last live shows, so everything needed to be literally dusted off and tested. The band themselves came in on the evening of the first day and, with very little preamble, began to run through the new material. There were frequent stops, sometimes in mid-tune, to discuss changes, revisions, new ideas for parts.
The new stuff sounded like old-school REM to me. All of the band seemed very engaged, and Peter Buck, in particular, was enthusiastic to be driving things along in a much more uptempo guitar-led style than I had heard from this band for years.
On a typical day, the band arrived first, without Michael Stipe, and ran through the ideas for the day. Michael came in during the afternoon and added his vocals, all the time referring to and revising lyrics on a Macbook, which was to remain set-up in the middle of the stage throughout the day and during the shows themselves.
Jacknife Lee, who produced the eventual record, had set up a small studio on stage left. He was monitoring everything as the band played, and I suppose these rough drafts were used quite a bit as sketch notes from which to draw the completed work later on. Lee was an interesting presence, very enthusiastic and very involved with the band. I think he is probably a great guy for the band to have around them during the demoing and final recording stages. He did not display any reticence in terms of pushing the band on that bit further musically.
The most downright entertaining part of each day was watching the band decide on a pretty ad hoc basis what old songs they would play at each gig. They changed the set-list every single day, and played mostly different back catalogue songs each time. The older material they chose to play tended towards earlier album tracks, with nothing too obvious: quite a bit of stuff from Murmur and Reckoning. In fact, over the five shows, I think they played pretty much everything from the Chronic Town EP, their oldest record.
Watching them huddled around the laptop on-stage, listening to iTunes and trying to work out old chords and arrangements, like a young covers band, was quite touching. Michael was funny as he tried to decipher ancient lyrics. which were never too clear to anyone at the best of times, least of all to himself, apparently.
I know a lot of fans came very long distances, sometimes without tickets, to try to see these gigs. All of the band, Michael included, tended to just walk in the stage door each day and it was good to see them deal with the fans in a courteous, no bullshit manner. Quite a few people who had no tickets managed to get themselves guest-listed by collaring individual band members as they arrived for ‘work’. It was amusing as well to see how (for the first few days at least) Michael Stipe could eat next door in Gruel (which he fell in love with) unrecognised.
It is fair to say the shows themselves are part of the REM legend at this stage. Other people have reviewed and discussed them at length, and I will leave that to them. I think everyone who was lucky enough be there got to witness REM taking chances again, which has to be a good thing. More notably, the band were visibly enjoying themselves. They were having fun. I haven’t heard the finished album yet, but I would have high expectations about an REM record for the first time in a long time.
And I can safely say the week spent working with them did not feel like work!
The Olympia Theatre.