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(Above: Michael Stipe introduces what “may well be his favorite song in the R.E.M. catalog.” The classic “Fall on Me” gets the unplugged treatment for MTV in 1991.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first volume of R.E.M.’s “MTV Unplugged” collection is a perfect storm of both the band and the zeitgeist.

In 1991, “Unplugged” was just starting to take off, thanks to the success of Paul McCartney’s official bootleg from his appearance on the show. The show was gaining a reputation for a place where classic rock artists could rekindle their audience by playing stripped-down versions of hits and a venue for newer, but still established, bands could expand their palette.

The year was also a watershed for R.E.M. Signing with Warner Bros. and a massive tour for “Green” had catapulted the quartet from cult status. “Out of Time,” the follow-up to “Green” became R.E.M.’s first No. 1 album, and produced their biggest hit, “Losing My Religion.”

“Out of Time” was also uniquely suited for “MTV Unplugged.” After building success with riff-heavy arena-ready songs like “The One I Love” and “Orange Crush,” the band decided to scale back. Mandolin, acoustic guitar and organ dominated songwriting process and, in turn, the final recordings.

R-E-M-MTV-Unplugged-1991It seemed inevitable that R.E.M. would appear on the popular MTV show. The surprising part is that it took 23 years for the performance to see proper release. After surviving for nearly a generation as old, dubbed VHS copies and bootlegged CDs, R.E.M. “Unplugged” was finally released. It debuted in April as a Record Store Day Exclusive vinyl set paired with an encore 2001 “Unplugged” performance. Several months later, stand-alone editions of both shows were released in multiple formats.

As a time capsule, “Unplugged” stands somewhere between essential and curiosity. The 17-song set is dominated by “Out of Time.” More than half the album is present, along with one outtake. As such, the album does a great job fleshing out this under-recorded era. Because the band abandoned touring and focused on television appearances and music videos, “Unplugged” stands as one of R.E.M.’s longest sets of the early ‘90s.

That said, most of the arrangements stick pretty close to the album versions so there aren’t any big revelations present. The best songs include a jangly, sing-along version of “End of the World” and an energetic reading of “Radio Song” sans KRS-One that leans heavily on guest Peter Holsapple’s organ. A low-key, less urgent “Disturbance at the Heron House” is a rare revision of an electric number and makes me wish the band had tried a few more (“These Days” and “Driver 8” spring to mind).

Five bonus tracks that never made it to air follow the full broadcast performance. Driven by Bill Berry’s congas, “Get Up” takes on a new life. “Swan Swan H” and “World Leader Pretend” mirror their album counterparts. “Fretless” represents the one song that doesn’t work unplugged.  The studio version of this “Out of Time” outtake foreshadows the direction the band would take on “Automatic for the People.” Robbed of electricity, it lacks the sense of suspicion and dread that fuels the track.

R.E.M. did themselves a disservice by waiting so long to release this set. It undoubtedly would have sold better 20 years ago when the band was at its peak and fans were anxious for new material.  While die-hards and completists have owned this performance for years, the improved sound and bonus tracks make it a worthwhile addition to the catalog. Ultimately, “Unplugged 1991” is a nice complement to a band working at peak convergence of popularity and artistry.

Disclaimer: The Daily Record was sent a complementary review copy of “Unplugged 1991” from Soundstagedirect.com in exchange for promoting the site. Readers may purchase this album, or any other, with a 10 percent discount using code KWS10. Soundstagedirect.com is not the only online retailer carrying this title.

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(Above: R.E.M. opened their 2003 concert in Kansas City with the rarely performed “Star 69. Here the band does it at Glastonbury ’99. )

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“This next song,” Michael Stipe said, “is a request.”

The number wasn’t a surprise. Much like right now, the country was leading up to a big election year. It was startling the band would start playing requests just two songs in to the set. But what made “World Leader Pretend” seem so stunning was that I had requested it.

Oh, I’m sure I’m not the only person who logged on to R.E.M.’s Website, selected the upcoming concert at Starlight Theatre and plugged “World Leader Pretend” into one of the three request slots. In that moment, however, it felt like the band was playing for ME, way up near the top of the theater bowl.

That feeling was reinforced two songs later when Stipe announced another request. “Fall on Me” is my all-time favorite R.E.M. song, and occupied another of my limited request spots. Those two moments, coupled with that night being my first (and now only) time seeing R.E.M. in concert made the night an incredible experience that cemented my passion for the band.

Shortsightedness prevented me from seeing R.E.M. eight years earlier, when they sold out two nights at Sandstone Amphitheatre in 1995 with Sonic Youth. Despite promoting the critically derided (but personally beloved) “Monster” album, that was R.E.M.’s first tour since the gigantic success of “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.”

Eight years later the band was in a very different place. Drummer and not-so-secret weapon Bill Berry had left and the remaining trio had released three increasingly experimental records with decreasing results. They had toured faithfully during that time, but always skipped Kansas City. In 2003 they were pumping a greatest hits collection and the generally lifeless “Around the Sun” was right around the corner. In that moment R.E.M. seemed like Johnny Unitas with the Chargers or Babe Ruth with the Braves. “Accelerate” and this year’s “Collapse Into Now” proved they were more like Bobby Hull with the Jets.

And now, nearly exactly eight years to the day1 after I saw them at Starlight, R.E.M. are done. Buck will probably continue to play sideman to Robyn Hitchcock and Scott McCaughey, Mills will make pleasant but unnecessary James Taylor-meets-Brian Wilson solo albums, and Stipe will direct films and make weird solo albums that sound nothing like R.E.M.

I’m happy that R.E.M. decided to call it a day instead of endlessly releasing uninspired product (I’m looking at you, Red Hot Chili Peppers). But I’m also sorry that I likely won’t hear the new sounds of three of my favorite musicians working together again.

R.E.M. have always been a part of my musical landscape. They were legends when I discovered music, and it makes me sad to think they now only exist in history. But I’ll always have the tape of “World Leader Pretend” and “Fall on Me” in my mind.2

1 Setlist.fm reminded me the concert was on Sept. 17, 2003.

2 If anyone has a real recording of this night, please let me know.

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