R.E.M.: Unplugged 1991 & 2001: The Complete Sessions

R.E.M.: Unplugged 1991 & 2001: The Complete Sessions


Rating: ★★★¾☆ 

Aside from maybe the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam, I can’t think of a more heavily-bootlegged band than R.E.M. Head on to eBay right now, and you’ll find more than a handful of bootleg tapes and records of live shows and obscure B-sides going for higher and higher prices. Hell, the band themselves have gotten in on this, padding their lone odds & ends collection Dead Letter Office with an Aerosmith cover and a jingle for their favorite rib joint. The cover of Unplugged 1991/2001 seems designed to appeal to this rabid sort of R.E.M. fan, its fuzzy screen-cap of a video image conveying notions of antiquity and scarcity. Of course, that’s not what these sessions are: this is a major-label reissue of two concerts recorded for MTV, which is just about as official as you can get. Still, Unplugged is an interesting little item, a time capsule presenting the band at two very different stages of their career.

The 1991 session, recorded around when Out of Time was released, might be the real rarity of the set, as it’s one of only a handful of live performances done in support of the album. (The famed road warriors were in the middle of a long break from touring after the grueling arena trek behind Green.) Even with the self-imposed limitations of the unplugged format, the band doesn’t appear to have missed a step here, and their performances are lively and vigorous throughout. What’s really interesting is how they play around with the Out of Time songs, most of which were likely recorded without any intent of performing them live. Some, like “Losing My Religion,” end up sounding exactly as you’d expect them to, but then there’s the more low-key rendition of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and the subtler, more rhythmic version of “Radio Song,” which reveals a fairly strong song underneath the band’s ill-advised stab at hip-hop. The inclusion of “Fretless”—hands down one the band’s best B-sides—and “Rotary 11” serve as a bit of a paean to collectors, but the real draw here is the general performance. Their nervous energy—fitting for a band that had somehow stumbled into superstar status—serves to loosen up what could have been a staid, measured performance, making their go-round at going Unplugged truly unforgettable.

Of course, the R.E.M. that returned to the Unplugged stage 10 years later was a far different beast entirely. Bill Berry had left, and the band reached its commercial peak and downfall in the mid-‘90s. Buck, Mills and Stipe had morphed from loose, ragged road warriors to deliberate studio musicians, and their measured approach is quite apparent in their performance. Aside from a few words from Stipe to the assembled audience, the 2001 performance is more subdued, the work of master craftsmen executing with precision. This approach works best when the band plays their material from Up and Reveal; songs like “I’ve Been High” and “Imitation of Life” work even better when removed from the busy, glossy sheen of the recorded versions. Still, even though the band picked some of their best trio material for this session, the gap in quality is readily apparent when placed alongside classics like “Country Feedback” or “So. Central Rain,” and it highlights the one real problem with this set as a whole: the two sessions may as well have been played by different bands, and neither of them really fit together.

Ultimately, though, this is still R.E.M., and few bands have ever been better in a live setting like this. As a time capsule/collectible, Unplugged is fascinating and occasionally thrilling, depending on which incarnation of the band you prefer (or, more likely, how indifferent you are to the band’s three-piece work). One could argue that a solid live album and an interesting late-period curiosity don’t necessarily count as “essential” works, but given how slim other groups’ vault material can be, the fact that Unplugged is this strong is quite impressive.

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