May 29, 2007
“Airportman” is the first song on R.E.M.’s first album without Bill Berry. It was also the first song in their first concert without him on June 14th, 1998 at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, DC. It was the first song at my first R.E.M. concert, and they have not played it since.
The version that they played on that day was even more ethereal than the recording that would eventually be the lead track on Up. If I recall correctly, the percussion was 100% live, and there was a greater emphasis on the chimey sounds, almost like straight-up New Age music with a muted new wave pulse. Stipe’s voice was buried in the mix even more so than on the album, and it pretty much sounded nothing at all like what anyone would have ever expected from R.E.M. back then, or even now.
Opening that show and the album with a song as mellow and atmospheric as “Airportman” was a very bold move, but then again, where the hell else were they supposed to put a composition like that? It’s the sort of track that either goes at the start or nowhere at all. Out of all of the opening cuts in R.E.M.’s catalog, it is by far the most gentle and cinematic as it eases us into the mood of the piece before dropping us into the action of the subsequent track.