Is R.E.M.'s Legendary 1991 Bingo Hand Job Concert Recording On Vinyl Really That Bad?

AR-BingoHandJob225.jpgI waited awhile before opening my coveted Record Store Day release of a now-classic concert recording by R.E.M. just as they were about to explode to world wide superstardom.  Called Bingo Hand Job, it was made in March 1991 just as Out of Time was being released and before the equally now-classic "Unplugged" sessions. The band played a then one-off acoustic show at a small club in London called The Borderline to a crowd of adoring fans including some special guests such as Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg.  The shows were widely bootlegged over the years. 

So I knew this music on Bingo Hand Job from those tapes which made the rounds of any good R.E.M. fan back in the day (in many ways R.E.M. fans were like indie rock's Dead Heads, trading tapes of shows). I also wasn't sure if this was going to be a soundboard recording of the show or "just" an audience recording like the bootlegs, but as I found a copy on Record Store Day (it was a quick seller here in San Francisco) I grabbed a copy. 

AR-BingoHandJobVideoGrab#2225.jpgAs I prepared this review I saw some complaints around on the Interwebs about the sound quality and set my expectations accordingly even before I took the shrink wrap off my LP copy of Bingo Hand Job. Before I did this I checked on YouTube for a refresher on the sound of the old bootleg tapes and was amazed to find that video of this show exists (click here for that)! This was obviously shot by someone working either with the band or the club, from the back of the club (probably near where the mixing board was located). 

Bingo Hand Job is a fun show, some two hours long with performances by the special guests as well as then touring band member Peter Holsapple of The dBs (introduced by Michael Stipe as Michelle Philips, from The Mamas & Papas!). There was a nice playful sense to these performances.

AR-BingoHandJobBackLabel225.jpgWe pause for my Audiophile Review interview with myself about Bingo Hand Job:

Q: Do I like the sound on it? 

A: Yes.

Q: Was it worth getting on vinyl?  

A: Well, sure.

Q: Is it a soundboard? 

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A: No.

Q: Does that mean its bad sounding. 

A: Not at all. 

Q: Is this a "demo worthy" album?

A: That depends on whether you like the natural sounds of a concert recording made from the audience in a small club...

So, yeah.  Bingo Hand Job is a fun, ambient recording made from the audience perspective in this small, sold out and packed club. It is an imperfect document but that is also the center of its charm. In a way this recording is perhaps more honest from an audiophile perspective than the MTV Unplugged sessions of a month later: you are hearing more of the acoustic feel of the band in the venue, replete with audience chatter and occasional distortion from the crowd applause. 

The MTV Unplugged shows are great but they are a "live in the studio" experience and thus the instruments, while acoustic in nature, sound inevitably a bit more sterile and plugged in. And while some of the instruments on Bingo Hand Job are no doubt also plugged into amps (or a line feed to the soundboard), at least you are hearing the combined acoustics of the instruments interacting with the acoustics of the venue and the audience.  

AR-REMUnpluggedScreenGrab225.jpgSo I return to my point that this is a perhaps more honest presentation of what R.E.M. sounded like playing acoustically live in a club. 

The performances are relaxed and exemplary. The standard weight vinyl pressing is solid, well centered and doesn't add any additional surface noise (ie. the pressing is pretty transparent in that sense).  

The package for Bingo Hand Job features fun artwork and a neat-funny "obi" that reads "Sanitized For Your Protection" (wording you might see wrapped around the toilet seat when entering a hotel bathroom just after you have checked into your room). Kudos to Craft Recordings for another high quality package.

To that, this album includes only R.E.M.'s performances from the show spread over four sides of a two-lp set; if you want to hear the contributions from Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg and Peter Holsapple, you'll have to rely on the bootlegs and the video up on YouTube (again, click here for that).

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I'm not disappointed with Bingo Hand Job. I like that its very much an official bootleg, accurately sounding the way it was captured in 1991 just as Out of Time was being breaking out. Its a cool snapshot of a crucial moment in time for the band. 

While Bingo Hand Job was a Record Store Day limited edition exclusive, if you check with your favorite stores you'll probably find a copy. Also poke around on Amazon (click the album title links above for that), Discogs and probably eBay but be forewarned that some copies are already going for heady collectors prices so you might want to get one sooner than later.

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