In addition to being stacked with content, this box set is a fascinating document, (pardon the pun), of the evolution of one of the greatest bands in rock music. Focusing on the live recordings as opposed to the BBC sessions, things start with in 1984 with the then still very much underground R.E.M. and an urgent performance at Rock City in Nottingham. The jangle and mumble of the early band is very much present. A band who know how to play and what they want to project but without the big hits that would take them skyward in later years. A certain hesitancy and sense of testing the water is evident here.
I have to confess to not being in the 'cool' crowd and preferring the Warner to IRS years. As a result the jump forward 9 years to a huge open air gig at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1995 is much more to my taste. Whilst able to fill stadiums after the huge hits of "Out Of Time", "Automatic For The People" and "Monster" and with an audience starved of the opportunity to see them live, the band doesn't seem quite at ease with this new platform. Michael Stipe in particular still seems to be finding his feet on such a big stage.
However the set is top-notch with both my two favourite R.E.M. songs, "Country Feedback" and "Let Me In" along with their best early period song "Fall On Me".
Fast forward 5 years to 1999 with a headline set at Glastonbury and the difference is pronounced. Here the band sound relaxed and confident and absolutely kill it. This is the sound of a band, which although they had passed their commercial peak, were in complete control and at home on the biggest of stages. Mixing old and new with abandon and concluding with a raucous "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
Another 5 years on and we have a much more intimate performance at St. James Church, serving as a showcase for then new album, "Around The Sun". I gather that this is not a popular album, particularly amongst fans of the I.R.S. years or with the band themselves. I would contend it is far stronger than most give it credit for, and that it is the style and sound which some find problematic. Perhaps too polished and 'soft', The songs are of as high quality as ever. Give it a jolt of the energy shown on "Accelerate" and I think its standing would be much higher.
There is so much good content here it can be nothing but recommended to fans of the band. When you add in the hour long documentary, the Jools Holland appearances along with the reflections included in the accompanying booklet and it becomes essential. The BBC sessions are almost a bonus as for me it is the chronicle of the band's development on the live stage that I enjoyed the most. If you decide to follow their journey I'm sure you will enjoy it too.
"Help me when I fall, to walk unafraid"