For so many, R.E.M. was one of the most important bands to come along since The Beatles; they helped redefine and reshape the musical landscape, starting in the early ’80’s and lasting a total of 31 years, until their announced dissolution in September, 2011. Being that there is a great wealth of unreleased R.E.M. material in the music vaults, this double CD set (or 4-lp set, if you were able to obtain one on Record Store Day) is the natural first “new” release. These recordings from MTV Unplugged have been circulating as bootlegs for years, but here now are the complete performances.
The first disc is the earlier session, which broadcast on MTV in early 1991, just as the band had issued Out Of Time, their global best-seller (and first #1 album/#1 single with “Losing My Religion”); it was R.E.M. truly at the height of their success and musical/popular powers. So when the show first aired, it was highly anticipated and well-received. From that first airing, the highlights were (most famously) the band’s cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around”; “Losing My Religion”, which was still riding high on the charts; the ever-gorgeous “Fall On Me” and the quietly sweet “Perfect Circle”. Of the previously unheard performances, “Swan Swan Hummingbird” and “Get Up” are wonderful. During this time, the band were ably assisted/abetted by the incredible Peter Holsapple on guitars, keys, etc., which truly helped flesh out the band’s overall live sound.
I don’t know how many artists made more than one appearance on MTV Unplugged, but R.E.M. returned ten years later, in 2001 – minus drummer Bill Berry, who left in 1997 – this time, helped out by drummer Joey Waronker and guitarists Scott McCaughey and Posies/Big Star mainstay Ken Stringfellow. Based around the release of their (at that time) recent Reveal album, it was an older, seemingly more subdued R.E.M. Nevertheless, the show’s standouts include the majestic “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, “Electrolite” and “Cuyahoga”. From the unseen/unheard portion of the show, “The One I Love” is of note.
R.E.M. was, indeed, a special band. And seeing/hearing them unplugged was a reaffirmation of how good they could be – even stripped down to the basics. But then, that’s what R.E.M. were all about – the basics. And this is a wonderful reminder.