Athens music scene reacts to R.E.M.’s surprise reunion performance

AthFest showcases the city’s music this weekend.

Last Thursday, in an interview broadcast on “CBS Mornings,” the original lineup of R.E.M. — vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry — spoke with journalist Anthony Mason before their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York.

During the conversation, filmed earlier this year, Stipe, 64, noted they were “sitting at the same table together with deep admiration and lifelong friendship.” Buck, 67, added, “I think we quit at the right time. This is a really good place to finish.” In the viral clip, Mills, 65, joked that it would take “a comet” for the band to get back together again, with Buck adding, “It’d never be as good.”

But later that night — before they went their separate ways after the Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Dinner — the four musicians played a surprise acoustic rendition of their 1991 hit “Losing My Religion.” The event, held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, marked the first time the band had played live in 17 years. Their previous performance was in 2007 in honor of their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Music fans around the world commented on the interview and performance. R.E.M.’s peers and friends from the Athens music scene also took note, including other pioneers of the modern music scene born in the college town. The AJC reached out to Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, as well as members of the B-52s, Pylon and Love Tractor for their reactions.

“It seems like everyone around here is still talking about it,” said singer and artist Vanessa Briscoe Hay of Athens-based Pylon Reenactment Society. “I think it’s great that not only does it draw attention to a worthy band, it also turns a new spotlight on the entire local music scene. I’m sure R.E.M. loves that aspect of it because they’ve done so much to help this community, usually without drawing any attention to themselves.”

Pylon Reenactment Society is Gregory Sanders (from left), Kay Stanton, Jason NeSmith and Vanessa Briscoe Hay.

Credit: Amy Ware

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Credit: Amy Ware

“With AthFest coming up this weekend,” Hay said, “it’s all perfect timing.” (PRS will be playing as part of the annual event at 12:30 a.m. on June 23 at the Georgia Theater.) “If any of them are back in town this week, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them out at the shows, supporting the live music scene of Athens.”

Co-founder of the original lineup of Pylon — formed a year before R.E.M.’s April 1980 debut — Hay has seen the music community grow from house parties and art school experimentation to widespread international acclaim. R.E.M. has often cited Pylon as the best and arguably most influential band of the city’s new music movement.

She said their initial endorsement helped her former band in many ways. “If it wasn’t for them, Pylon wouldn’t have reunited the first time. Before that, the B-52s helped us book our first show in New York. We all support each other, even though we’re not neighbors or classmates anymore.”

Her fellow UGA art student, Love Tractor guitarist Mark Cline, echoed Hay’s praise. “R.E.M. really put the scene on the map. After the B’s had moved away from town, there was nothing going on, literally nothing. So we had to make our own fun. The only rules were to be danceable and creative. I think R.E.M. set a high bar for all of us in the early ‘80s,” he said by phone from his home in New York.

Love Tractor is Mike Richmond, Armistead Wellford, Mark Cline and Andrew Carter.

Credit: Courtesy of Propeller Sound Recordings/Love Tractor.

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Credit: Courtesy of Propeller Sound Recordings/Love Tractor.

Love Tractor bassist Armistead Wellford added, “the early Athens bands are still like a family and we’re all really different. The B’s challenged us to be original and to make the best music we possibly could. I saw that with R.E.M. when I watched them rehearse for their first show. Even then, you could just tell they were destined to be famous.” (Richmond-based Wellford plays AthFest with his side-project Armistead’s Army on Saturday night at 10 p.m. at the Foundry.)

In 1976, Kate Pierson — along with bandmates Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland — started the “new music” movement in the then-sleepy college town. Reached via email as the B’s traveled to Atlantic City for shows this weekend, Pierson said she really enjoyed the CBS interview. “A lot of their answers were just like what the B-52s have always said about sharing writing credits, a lifelong friendship and just an eternal gratefulness for being able to do this for so long.”

Kate Pierson of the B-52s

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

When asked about R.E.M.’s choice of “Losing My Religion” as a possible final bow, she replied it was the perfect decision. “It’s just such an iconic song. It was great to hear it in a more stripped-down version, too. It allowed you to really hear the emotion in Michael’s voice.”

She also noted that members of the B’s had been fans since seeing one of R.E.M.’s earliest performances. “We saw one of the very early shows they did in Athens. Our friend [the late Athens-based songwriter/artist] Jeremy Ayers said, ‘There’s this new band, they sound great and they’re cute.’ So of course, we just had to go check ‘em out. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Pierson — who has a new solo record scheduled for release in September — further confirmed the camaraderie of the scene. “It’s great that we’re all still staying busy. I’ve kept in touch with Vanessa from Pylon and I sang on one of the songs [”Fix It”] from the recent album by the Pylon Reenactment Society.” She added she has remained in touch with Cline and Wellford from Love Tractor. “I’m just so excited by what everyone’s doing. I also see Michael Stipe from time to time and Mike Mills recently came to see us play in Las Vegas.”

“We all have a special bond,” said Pierson. “Even though the B’s left Athens, we all came back frequently so I definitely feel a very strong connection with all of those early Athens bands. Each one was so unique. Everyone was an ‘original,’ totally different from any other — yet it was a real, unified community.”

The collective spirit carried on when R.E.M. included Pierson as a guest on their 1991 album “Out Of Time.” “We were at Radio City and Michael asked, ‘Would you sing on our new record?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ So they sent me a few songs and I was off to [Prince’s Minneapolis studio] Paisley Park, where they recorded it. They gave me free rein to just do my thing. I remember we were all waiting for Prince to finally appear and of course he never did. But Michael and I had a snowball fight outside, so it was fun.”

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, reached at his office in Athens, agrees with the pioneers of the scene that the city is lucky to have so much talent, interest and support. “I’ve been a fan of all these folks forever. Watching that interview — and especially to see Bill’s emotional comments — it just reminded me of what an incredible journey the Athens music scene has enjoyed.”

On Nov. 3, 2023, Monkees star Micky Dolenz (center) gets the key from Athens mayor Kelly Girtz (right of Girtz) while three members of R.E.M. join him: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Bill Berry. CONTRIBUTED/DIXIE TAYLOR

Credit: RODNEY HO/

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Credit: RODNEY HO/

“It was very touching to see the openness of the guys in R.E.M. and how much they truly love each other,” said Girtz. “It’s amazing to see that the people who made so many great records that mean to much to so many people, including myself, are always willing to give back to the community. It’s an important relationship that has touched so many people, locally and all over the world. Thanks to their incredible legacy their music — as well as their intense devotion to Athens — it will inspire people for years to come.”

At press time, the members of R.E.M. hadn’t responded to the AJC’s interview request, but singer Michael Stipe is featured this week on an engaging episode of The Singers Talk on



June 21-23. Pylon Reenactment Society headlines the Georgia Theatre Saturday night (officially 12:30 a.m. June 23). Club crawl passes are $35; VIP passes $75-$150. The AthFest Main Stage area is on Washington Street at Pulaski Street, in front of the 40 Watt Club at 285 W. Washington St., Athens. For club crawl tickets and schedule information, call 706-548-1973 or visit is also broadcasting an evening of music from AthFest on Saturday night. The entire lineup of the “Athens Four Track” showcase — featuring the Shut-Ups at 8 p.m., David Barbe Plus at 9 p.m., Armistead’s Army at 10 p.m. and Sneakers at 11 p.m. — will be streamed live from the Foundry on E. Dougherty Street.