I'm almost ashamed that it took me so long to get around to this one. I had the good fortune to grow up in Atlanta, graduate from high school in 1982, and attend college in North Carolina while most of my closest friends were (a) aspiring musicians and (b) going to school in Athens, Georgia. It was the perfect place and time to witness the infancy of one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time, and to this day, I consider it one of the foremost blessings of my musical life.
To tell the whole story of my 80s obsession with R.E.M. would take a book. Suffice it to say that, from the moment I got the just-released Hibtone "Radio Free Europe" / "Sitting Still" single back to my teenage room in 1981 and needle hit vinyl, I knew my life had changed. I saw them live for the first time at a free festival show in Piedmont Park on May 14, 1982, weeks before my high school graduation. There were maybe 100 people on the grass in front of the stage. And it was mind-blowing. By the time I settled in at Duke University the following Fall, I had seen them several more times, the Chronic Town EP was out, and I just knew I was following the start of something very special. This was not just the best band from my hometown, or the best band from the South. This, I was already certain, was a band for the ages. And I was right.
I took it upon myself to become R.E.M.'s advocate on my Yankee campus in North Carolina, telling anyone who would listen that this was the next great American band, the next "best band on the planet". I became a DJ at the student radio station and slipped an R.E.M. track (or two) into every show. Murmur was released in '83 and the word spread more quickly. If they played anywhere near Durham, I was there, dragging the unconverted along with me when I could. I road-tripped to Athens to see them play the old 40 Watt and the Mad Hatter, and through my musician friends, eventually met and spent an evening or two on the town with Peter Buck. (I don't think he ever paid for a beer when I was around.) I bought every 12" import single to get the obscure b-sides, and saved every scrap of memorabilia (including the poster and gig flyer that hang in my study at home to this day). And when the band played two nights at Duke's Page Auditorium in September of 1984 -- shows that, oddly enough, were recorded for an official live album that was never released, and is now widely booted -- I was front and center both nights, like some proud little brother, and did the interview with Peter on the student TV station, even though I didn't work there, because no one else knew what to ask him. (In retrospect, I guess, the cool kids at school really weren't all that cool.) I could go on and on. But by the time I graduated from college in the spring of '86 and headed to law school in -- you guessed it -- Athens, Georgia, the story of R.E.M. was no longer even remotely obscure. Many of you probably have stories of your own.
But, oh yeah, I'm supposed to be introducing a bootleg. Choosing the best early R.E.M. boot is a tall order. Soundboard tapes of many of the very early shows -- at the 40 Watt and Tyrone's in Athens, at The Strand in Marietta, a sloppy '81 bar show in Greensboro, NC, the '82 Piedmont Park show that was my first, and even an '82 show in San Francisco -- circulate widely today, and are uniformly fantastic. And then there is the show at the Seattle Music Hall in June of '84, recorded for broadcast across the U.S., that many regard as the best R.E.M. gig ever. (It's certainly up there, for sure.) But by then the band had graduated from small clubs to theatres, and the experience of seeing them, while still powerful and amazing, had definitely changed a bit from the earliest days.
When I'm in the mood to hear a great early R.E.M. show -- one that best recalls the days of seeing them in a small, crowded, sweaty club, but with a setlist full of original (now classic) tunes and on the very cusp of breaking bigger -- I return again and again to this one, recorded at Larry's Hideaway in Toronto in July of 1983. It's not a perfect tape by any means. In fact -- and be warned -- there are a few brief cuts, some diginoise and other glitches here and there. But even with a flaw or two, this tape is spectacular -- a great band, at a thrilling time in their career, and on a particularly inspired night. From the chiming arpeggios pouring out of Peter's Rickenbacker, to Mike Mills' dextrous, innovative basslines, to Michael Stipe's singular baritone and oblique poeticism, the R.E.M. machine is firing here in all its early, post-punk glory. And, as I always tell people who've come to the band fairly recently, just listen to the mighty Bill Berry on this tape. He is the engine driving this train, and his rapid-fire playing on this night (as usual) is a marvel. I don't know how else to say it -- these guys were, and still are, something else. I may not have been at this particular show, but I was at countless others just like it. How freaking lucky am I?
Special thanks to my teacher and friend BED for blessing this post in advance.
R.E.M. - RISING - live at Larry's Hideaway, Toronto, Ontario, July 9, 1983
Back (track list slightly incorrect, but close enough)
01 Wolves, Lower
02 Moral Kiosk
05 Moon River
06 There She Goes Again > 7 Chinese Brothers
07 Talk About The Passion
08 Sitting Still
11 Pretty Persuasion
12 Gardening At Night
14 Just A Touch
15 West Of The Fields
16 Radio Free Europe
17 We Walk
19 Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)