Lou Reed called his most famous live album “Rock and Roll Animal,” but the title was kind of a joke even then, in 1974. The unofficial poet laureate of New York City is one of the least-pandering rockers ever, and his complete absorption in the music gives him a paradoxical charm: Like all icons of existential cool, he seems truly not to give semi-consensual anonymous back-alley fuck whether you like him or not.
Take Tuesday night’s powerful but frustratingly brief show at the 9:30 Club. The majority of the mere dozen songs performed were mid-80s-and-later album cuts, with only “Sweet Jane” (disposed of early in the set) and “Perfect Day” among Reed’s “hits.” He might have rolled his eyes introducing the Velvet Underground curio “I’m Sticking with You” (“This was in ‘Juno,’ that’s why we’re doing it”) but you just never know with this guy. Reed’s signature speak-singing, as distinct and authoritative as Johnny Cash’s, sometimes seems to veil everything in a protective layer of sarcasm.
Increasingly as he's aged, Reed, 66, has used this vocal armor to get away with naked, frank introspection that would sound insufferably weak in anybody else's mouth. (‘Naked’ is not just a metaphor here — few songwriters have addressed sex as Reed has, viscerally but with more revulsion than prurience.) The sole new song he performed, but didn’t identify, was like this, with its refrain, “the power of the heart.” But his tough-guy delivery also makes him out-loud funny sometimes, as in the well-chosen opener, “Mad.” (“I know I shouldn’t have had someone else in our bed, but I was so tired / Who would think you’d find a bobby pin?”)
The sold-out crowd followed Reed through his back pages without hesitation, though it was probably the incendiary chemistry of the band — featuring lead guitarist Steve Hunter, reunited with Reed from the 1973 “Berlin” album, along with longtime members Mike Rathke, Tony "Thunder" Smith, and Rob Wasserman — on numbers like “Ecstacy” and “Video Violence” that moved them. Reed rescued two from his fascinatingly clunky The Raven, adapted from/inspired by Poe: “I Wanna Know” felt unintentionally comic with drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith filling in for the Blind Boys of Alabama (not a task to be wished upon anyone), but “Guardian Angel” had the wrecked beauty of Reed’s best material.
The main-set finale was an apocalyptic “Magic and Loss,” Reed’s title cut from an album that chronicles two of his friends’ slow deaths from cancer. (Rock on, Washington DC!) “There’s a bit magic in everything,” goes one lyric, “then some loss to even things out.” That sounds about right.
A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today's Paper of Record. NPR recorded this show for webcast pending Lou's approval; they're still waiting on that as of yesterday. Check their blog for some amusing stuff about how Lou kept them scrambling to find the right gear to capture the show to his exacting specifications.
Lou Reed at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, April 22, 2008
02 Sweet Jane
03 I'm Set Free
05 I'm Sticking with You
06 [new one w/ some refrain about "the power of the heart," Lou said it was new but didn't give a title]
07 I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum)
08 Halloween Parade
09 Video Violence
10 Guardian Angel
11 Magic and Loss (The Summation)
12 Perfect Day
Steve Hunter - lead guitar
Mike Rathke - guitar
Rob Wasserman - upright bass
Kevin Hearn - keyboards, vocals
Tony "Thunder" Smith - percussion, vocals
Seth Calhoun - "live electronics"
Lou - lead vocals, guitar
UPDATE: Excepted from the April 29 edition of WashPo pop critic J. Freedom du Lac's "Freedom Rock" webchat:
Mt. Pleasant, D.C.: Please, please tell Post writers and all the critics you know to stop using phrases like "the unofficial poet laureate of New York City" to describe Lou Reed, because he apparently reads these reviews, takes them to heart and then decides 75 minutes of rambling, mid-tempo pretense constitutes a good show. Sure "naked, frank introspection" is a good thing, but it's not enough to make up for high school literary magazine-quality lyrics and a kind of ostentatious lack of enthusiasm from the guy. I disagree with your colleague Chris Klimek the words sounded "insufferably weak" even from the mouth of The Great Man. I mean, he's a legend, he can do what he wants, and no one needs to hear "Walk on the Wild Side"� again. But a little energy and a little wit to balance the ballads would have made for a show that was actually worth watching.
J. Freedom du Lac: Duly noted -- and possibly/probably something Chris will respond to if he's reading in real-time, or something close to it.
Everybody knows (or should know) that rock's real poet laureate of NYC is actually Patti Smith.
But I thought the show was pretty solid. Not great, but absolutely worth watching, even if he did half-arse his way through some of the material, "Sweet Jane" especially. Maybe he was just tired after his weekend wedding.