Twenty-seven years and thirteen studio albums ago, R.E.M. played Dublin for the first time. On Saturday, the band returned to Ireland for "Working Rehearsals," five sold-out gigs at the city's Olympia Theatre to test out material from their fourteenth effort, midway through recording. Why Dublin? Bassist Mike Mills described the audience as "some of the best fans in the world."
In stark contrast to the elaborate setup they brought on their most recent tour for 2004's Around the Sun, R.E.M. performed in front of a simple backdrop marked "This is Not a Show." Michael Stipe took the stage equipped with a music stand full of lyrics and a laptop (sporting a sticker that read IMPEACH), and opened with a new song that recalled the band's earlier work, the aggressive, angsty "Living Wells." Guinness in hand, Stipe admitted some of the songs had not yet been played by the whole band before he dove into another new track, the stripped-down, guitar-heavy "Staring Down."
After offering a special thanks to U2's Bono and the Edge, who came out to support their friends, R.E.M. plucked only a few selections from their archive, including "Electrolite," "Little America" and "These Days." The crowd relished every moment of the band's 19-song set, bobbing their heads through the melancholy "Mr. Richards" and the brief yet rambling "Houston," and listening intently as Stipe cautiously debuted "Man Size Wreath." The singer openly scratched and edited lyrics onstage as the band launched into the simple "Till the Day Is Done" (guitarist Peter Buck's favorite tune so far). They wrapped up with the tormented "Horse to Water."
After their Dublin residency ends this Wednesday, R.E.M. will return to their Athens, Georgia, hometown to finish the as-yet-untitled album. If they capture any of the courage they displayed Saturday night, this effort may be the most bold R.E.M. release in years.