Lou Reed – The Forum, Melbourne, September 9, 2003
It’s possible that Lou Reed might be an unfairly maligned character. Most people think of him as serious, even dour (possibly grumpy), able to rip open unwary interviewers at the drop of an epithet. But lurking beneath that craggy exterior is someone with a rather heightened sense of humour. At least that is what I tell my myself after a brief encounter with Laurie Anderson’s better half.
The most notable thing about Reed’s tour this time around is the absence of a drummer. In a chance encounter (no, I wasn’t stalking him) I mentioned to Reed that I enjoyed the sound without the drum kit on stage. Lou then launched into a soliloquy about the joys of playing without a drummer, ending with his theory that every other musician knows when to stop playing but drummers never seem to!
‘You think they would have learned something after all these years, wouldn’t you?’ he asked.
Of course, Reed said all this tongue in cheek (I think) but it is a valid point and one that separates this tour from his last visit and just about every other rock ‘n’ roll tour you will see this year. (How long before the trend catches on?).
The fact is that the sound of Reed’s band – with Mike Rathke on guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass and Jane Scarpantoni on cello – was crisp, clear and wide open. The guitars set the rhythm, occasionally Saunders plays an electronic drum pad, and you can hear everything beautifully without an incessant thumping in the background (which is what tends to happen at these larger venues).
When Reed and his band started the show by launching into the extended jam that became ‘Sweet Jane’ – and he explained that his career was based not on three chords but four – that signature sound washed back over you. It is a sound that is as distinctive as Bob Dylan or Miles Davis.
Unlike last his tour when he played mainly newer material from the Ecstasy album, Reed’s repertoire this time around was taken from across his career. There was ‘Small Town’ (which featured Rathke on guitar/piano) from Songs For Drella album (Reed’s tribute to Andy Warhol), ‘How Do You Think It Feels’, now even more powerful than in its original guise on 1973’s Berlin album, and selections from the latest project The Raven (based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe). There was even an encore from Transformer.
Then there was the way Reed transformed songs and gave them new life. ‘Men Of Good Fortune’ was invested with renewed energy and sounded as frantic as in its original incarnation. ‘Vanishing Act’, from The Raven, was as eerie as the latest recording. ‘The Day John Kennedy Died’ was a touching personal reflection. ‘Street Hassle’ was a scarifying chronicle of a different life.
Maybe the highlight of the evening, ‘Venus In Furs’ was turned into an epic with a cello solo by Scarpantoni punctuating it with an unforgettable emotion (think Jimi Hendrix playing a cello!). ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ featured an accompanying performance by tai chi master Ren Guangyi, whose presence had me mystified but whose movements were spectacularly graceful.
A bonus on this tour was vocalist Anthony (his complete name) sitting quietly at the side of the band contributing some outstanding harmonies and a sensational solo on ‘Candy Says’, one of the encores. It occurred to me that this man has one of the best jobs in music!
The ever-brilliant Saunders, who played some searing bass solos, even got to highlight one of his own songs, the ballad ‘Reviens Cherie’ – a generous move from the bandleader. Saunders’ own latest album, I Will Break Your Fall, features a duet with Marianne Faithfull on ‘Backstreet Girl’ and it would have been perhaps even better to have heard him do that.
The show ended with a chilling version of ‘The Raven’ (recorded with Willem Dafoe but here with Lou’s recitation) and any doubts about how Reed could effectively meld this classic poetry with rock music were swept away with the power of the interpretation.
It might seem perverse encoring a ballad but Reed is anything but predictable and his choice of the beautiful ‘Candy Says’ (sung brilliantly by Anthony).
Then we were left with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, a song I never thought I would hear him perform and one which burnt itself into my brain those many years ago when it was played over the PA before the Stones Kooyong show in 1973. Even thirty years later, in a mellower form, it remains a classic and a song that defines Reed’s persona – but not one which restrains him.
It was a nice thank you from him to the audience, which had listened devotedly. Of course, Reed wouldn’t admit he was offering a gift but maybe apart from being a bit of a joker he is also a sentimentalist. At over two and a half hours he was also generous.
Thank you , Lou.