We’ll be sharing old and new R.E.M. articles all week as we help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band’s first show. We’ll be reliving all these moments with the late R.E.M. drummer, Bill Rieflin, in our thoughts. Today, Bryn Rich takes us through the band’s finest concerts.
Forty years ago this weekend, Kathleen O’Brien threw one hell of a birthday party.
The old, deconsecrated church on Oconee Street was packed with kids from the Athens, Georgia art scene who wanted to get drunk, make out with each other, and catch a set from local band The Side Effects. But while everything else about that night may be long lost in a boozy haze, people would spend the next few decades talking about the sloppy, unnamed opening act that played a bunch of covers too fast and sprinkled in a few goofy garage-rock originals.
It was that band’s first show. Two weeks later, they would settle on the name “R.E.M.”
From those humble, beer-soaked beginnings, R.E.M. became one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They sold out arenas, headlined festivals, and introduced the world to bands like Radiohead, Wilco, and The National.
Here are 10 of the most legendary, ridiculous, and unbelievable shows they played. Some have been officially released while others are out there if you know where to look (wink wink, nudge nudge).
10. The Uptown Lounge Athens, GA — February 12th, 1985
A few days before they started work on Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M. packed the Uptown Lounge in Athens to run through the new material. Billed under the pseudonym “you” (Peter Buck’s idea), they premiered future classics like “Life and How to Live It”, “Maps and Legends”, and “Can’t Get There From Here” — along with a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb”.
09. Tyrone’s OC, Athens, GA — July 23rd, 1981
Despite the band’s reputation as serious, socially conscious artists, their early Athens gigs were straight up parties. This show is one of the best from that era. Not only do you get early versions of songs from Murmur, Reckoning, and the Chronic Town EP, but they play a bunch of unreleased gems like “That Beat”, “Hey Hey Nadine” and “Narrator” shortly before shelving them in favor of more sophisticated material.
Editor’s Note: The above audio is indicative of shows and setlists at that time.
08. Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utecht, NL — September 14th, 1987
1987’s “Work Tour” found R.E.M. on the cusp of becoming global superstars. They’d just released their fifth album, Document, and got their first taste of mainstream success with “The One I Love”. This is only the second date of the tour, and you can feel the urgency as they rip through political anthems like “Finest Worksong”, “These Days”, and “Exhuming McCarthy”. But after the intensity of the main set, the final encore contains one of their most beautiful live moments — a stripped-down medley of “Time After Time (AnnElise)” and “So. Central Rain” that uses snippets of Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain”. You can listen to the show on the 25th Anniversary reissue of Document, but you can only hear the full closing medley (released as “Time After Time, etc.”) on the “Finest Worksong” single.
07. The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, IE — June 30th, 2007
R.E.M.’s working rehearsals at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin served as a “reset” button for a band that was on the brink of collapse. For the first time in years, they were loose and enjoying themselves, skipping the hits in favor of deep cuts like “1,000,000” and “Letter Never Sent” that hadn’t been performed live in decades. Of course, the whole point of these shows (which, the band repeatedly insisted were not “shows”) was to run through the new material they’d worked up for Accelerate. Songs like “On the Fly” and “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” may not have made the album’s final cut, but you can hear selections from this show and more on 2009’s Live at the Olympia.
06. Kingpin’s Bowl and Brew, Athens, GA — October 8th, 2005
For one night in 2005, the “Spare Room” at Kingpin’s Bowl and Brew played host to the greatest wedding band of all time. To celebrate guitar tech DeWitt Burton’s nuptials, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe reunited with original drummer Bill Berry for a seven song set of I.R.S.-era classics like “Begin the Begin”, “Radio Free Europe”, and “Wolves, Lower.”
Setlist: “Begin the Begin”, “Radio Free Europe”, “Wolves, Lower”…
Click ahead for more classic R.E.M. shows…
05. The 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA — November 19th, 1992
R.E.M. played the 40 Watt Club dozens of times over the years, but their 1992 Greenpeace benefit show holds the distinction of being the only proper show of the Automatic for the People era. They were one of the biggest bands in the world, throwing it down at an old hometown haunt. This set features the weird electric version of “Drive”, the live premiere of “Man on the Moon”, and some Iggy Pop and The Troggs covers. The entire set was recorded via solar-powered mobile studio (naturally) and released as B-sides to Monster-era singles.
04. The Borderline, London, UK — March 15th, 1991
R.E.M. didn’t tour behind Out of Time. But when they found themselves in the UK for promo appearances and needed to justify work visas, they threw together a pair of secret shows at a 200-capacity club as “Bingo Hand Job.” Each member got a pseudonym (Michael Stipe was “Stinky”) and they were joined by special guests Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock, and Peter Holsapple for lengthy acoustic sets that drew heavily from Out of Time and Green, as well as quirky covers of songs by Bob Dylan, John Prine, Hitchcock, and Suzanne Vega. The bootlegs of these shows have been widely circulated, but last year the band released select songs as a Record Store Day exclusive.
03. The Omni, Atlanta, GA — November 21st, 1995
After the traumatic year they’d had with Bill Berry’s brain aneurysm, Michael Stipe’s hernia, and Mike Mills’ intestinal adhesion, no one would’ve blamed R.E.M. for limping across the finish line of their 1995 tour. But the final show of their multi-night run at The Omni in Atlanta was an honest-to-god victory. They played the majority of Monster, five songs from the still-unreleased New Adventures in Hi-Fi and closed with a joyous, triumphant cover of “Wild Thing”. No one knew it would be their last real show with Bill Berry behind the kit, but it was an incredible swan song for R.E.M.’s original lineup.
02. The Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA — November 13th, 1989
After wrapping up their massive 1989 tour, the band returned to Georgia to headline a benefit for the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation at Atlanta’s iconic Fox Theatre. But rather than treating it like just another show, they performed Murmur and Green in their entirety, back-to-back. Not only did this mean they played rarities like “Hairshirt” and “Eleventh Untitled Song”, but it marked the first and only time they ever performed “The Wrong Child” live.
01. Barrymore’s Music Hall, Ottawa, ON — August 17th, 1985
R.E.M.’s show at Barrymore’s Music Hall started off like every other night on the 1985 tour. They opened with “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, played some choice songs from Murmur and Reckoning, and then things quickly got out of hand when some drunk hecklers caused a scene. Mike Mills and Peter Buck threatened audience members from the stage, Michael Stipe started insulting the crowd’s taste, and the band proceeded to play a lengthy second set of covers that ranged from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. After 37 songs, they came back out to encore with “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” and called it a night.