The back of R.E.M.‘s new live DVD, Live from Austin, TX, reads “History was made the night of March 13, 2008, when the members of R.E.M. stepped onto the Austin City Limits for the first time.” So if your idea of history is R.E.M. performing a smattering of songs from an as-yet-unreleased album in front of 350 people on PBS, then here is your artifact. The release of the album Accelerate was less than a month away, and R.E.M. was pushing it hard. On this unedited DVD, nine of the 17 songs from their set were to come from that album (“Mr. Richards” and “Sing for the Submarine” are the two left out, in case you were wondering), so it’s a really good thing that these “new” songs of theirs were well suited for a live setting. It’s over half the DVD!
As a product, Live from Austin, TX has the same things going for and against it that you come across with many music DVDs. First of all, for this being such a “historic” occasion, there are surprisingly few extras (read: none) and the mix is distracting. On some songs, all you can hear is Michael Stipe’s voice and Peter Buck’s guitar while Bill Rieflin’s drums are pushed way down in the mix while Scott McCaughey and Mike Mills appear to be plucking instruments that sometimes make no sound. My wife, the ex-pat R.E.M. fan, pointed out that “Losing My Religion” badly needed the ascending bass line that Mills gave it all those years ago, only to have it pretty much gone from the DVD.
From a performance point of view, R.E.M. appears to be bogged down by the usual problem of being on television; try as you might, it’s just hard to “rock” on public television. Their one-two punch opener of “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Man-Sized Wreath” feels designed to kick start the program with a roar, but the band’s true stride isn’t achieved until the final two songs before their encore. “I’m Gonna DJ” and “Horse to Water” really feel like the band was relaxed and letting go, that Michael Stipe would let his hair down if he had any. But everything before that feels too stilted and controlled to remind everyone that this band was one of America’s greatest creations of the ‘80s.
Even as “Drive” and “So. Central Rain” both fall a little flat on this side of the multimedia experience, the guys in R.E.M. don’t look like they’re bothered by any of this. Michael Stipe in particular seems to be enjoying himself greatly. At one point, this gets the better of him as he lays a terribly atonal harmonica solo on top of “Bad Day.” His ego gets a harmless boost from a young boy in the audience telling him that he’s awesome, adding to the tossed-off nature of an Austin City Limits performance.
All in all, it evens out. The impeding parts of an R.E.M. show come through on Live from Austin—Stipe’s distracting dancing, Mike Mills’ off-key harmonizing here and there, Peter Buck’s insistent jumps during edgeless songs, and the trillionth performances of tired numbers like “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon.” The virtues of a laid-back R.E.M. are just as evident, here (from the newest songs, no less!), giving you the whole picture of the frustration that is R.E.M. fandom. It’s not so much “history” as it is an entertaining 72-minute watch.