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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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dv0302016

By Joel Francis

We never had cable television in our house when I was growing up. Some people are surprised when I reveal this tidbit, but I don’t think one would have to scratch to deeply to tie this to my long-running obsession with pop culture.

As a child this was no big deal, but as I got older being disconnected from the great mainstream fountain of MTV put my sister and I severely out of the loop.

To plug into the cultural zeitgeist we had to go to the Mecca of the cutting-edge, St. Joseph, Mo. There, at our grandparents’ house, we got to gorge on cable programming and feast on the forbidden MTV. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the best. With two extended breaks within a month of each other, my sister and I could catch up on all the Yo! MTV Raps, Club MTV, Headbanger’s Ball and Street Party we could get away with.

Our system was both simple and foolproof. The main TV in my grandparents’ house was in the basement by the fireplace. My sister would position herself at the bottom of the steps (with the door “accidentally” closed at the top), and I would hover my finger over the “previous channel” button on the remote, ready for her signal.

In that basement we saw the videos for Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” and Michael Jackson’s “Jam” for the first time. We witnessed the evolution of Kurt Cobain, performing with cheerleaders, hanging on a cross and eventually playing unplugged in a natty sweater. We also saw the hot dance moves I knew my hopelessly uncoordinated body would never let me conquer. Armed with this information, we would return to school and be in the know until Valentine’s Day. In that brief window, all of our touchstones would begin to stale until we were once again relegated to the sidelines and second-hand video knowledge.

Of course watching that much MTV could only lead to premarital sex and other inappropriate behavior, but if our parents cared they didn’t let on much. They were probably just happy my sister and I weren’t fighting for once. There may have been several occasions dad watched with us just to see what all the fuss was about. Allegedly. (He was as impressed with the 360-degree camerawork on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” as us. In a pre-“Matrix” world it was pretty remarkable. I also remember him liking the dolphins in Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Estranged,” not that it made any more sense then than it does now.)

My grandparents downsized to a condo in the late ‘90s. By then I was in college and my sister could drive to Westport and experience a more authentic musical environment. They eventually moved closer to our parents and better healthcare in Independence.

Grandma died a week ago today, five days after suffering a stroke that rendered her right side paralyzed and took away her ability to speak. She could still smile, though, and the half of her face that could lit up any time one of her loved ones walked into her hospital room. She went quicker than expected – Grandpa didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye – but peacefully in her sleep.

Truth is, of all my grandparents, my grandma and I probably had the least obvious connection. She was all the things I wasn’t: patient, selfless and completely uninterested in sports, music and movies. Her life revolved around church and serving her friends and family. Anything else that collided with that universe was just gravy.

The TV in her basement, like a lot of the furniture in that room was sold or given away long ago. But in a lot of ways, it was never turned off. I go back there in my mind when I pull up a long-forgotten Black Star video up on Youtube, or watch any of my music DVDs. And now I think of Grandma, waiting for us upstairs with a freshly prepared hot meal and a smile on her face. Come join us. There’s always room for one more at her table.

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