Saturday, August 6, 2016

Lou-palooza: Reed-in’ in the Rain at Lincoln Center

Ad for Lou's first post-
Velvets solo gig in NYC
at Lincoln Center (1973).
The weather might’ve been awful, but the music was wonderful. And there was a helluva lot of Lou Reed’s music sung, played, recited, projected, and “droned” at the marathon Lincoln Center Out of Doors event called “The Bells: a Daylong Celebration of Lou Reed” this past Saturday. Those of us who saw all three live shows got a bit more than six and a half hours (!) of live performance — that doesn’t count the Reed-related special events and free video screenings.

I didn’t have the chance to check out the drone event (an installation in which six of Lou’s guitars played feedback), nor did I rewatch any of the Lou-movies (what, no Get Crazy?) Two martial arts performances were also staged — the second was memorable, not only because the participants were quite gifted, but because a “pushing hands” exhibition was staged (and timed perfectly) to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (although this was not to be the most strikingly unusual use of Velvets’ music during the day).

The fact that the stage shows were sublime was welcome, of course, but not a surprise, since the day was produced, programmed, masterminded, coordinated, devised, and executed in benevolent mad scientist style by Laurie Anderson and Hal Willner (whose great live shows I have raved about before on this blog). 

The three shows each had a different tone. The first was a pure rock ‘n’ roll tribute to Lou; the second was a reading of lyrics that went from the genuinely touching to the bizarre; the third was the most affectionate of the shows, in which the purported theme was Lou’s “love songs,” but Laurie assured us at the outset that the setlist would “stretch the definition” of that term.

The rock ‘n’ roll show started off innocently enough, with MC Don Fleming presenting a band of little girls (called “Unidentified”) doing “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” (because, of course, “Venus in Furs” was already taken….) The fact that the show skewed toward “downtown” NYC performers kicked in with Jesse Malin of D Generation doing the VU anthem “Rock‘n’ Roll” (the first Lou Reed song this reviewer ever heard, thanks to WNEW-FM several eons ago).

After Malin, Joan as Police Woman sang “Ecstasy” from the album of the same name (one of only two songs that appeared in both tribute concerts, and the only one to be sung both times by the same person). At this point, yrs truly began taking pictures — I forgot my digital camera at home and instead was consigned to the living death that is photography with a phone. Thankfully, blogger “Mr C” brought a video camera to the show and captured some great performances for his Planet Chocko blog (linked to throughout this piece — like me, he was able to chronicle the early show better than the later two).
Joan as Police Woman in the early show. photo by Ed G.
The bulk of the songs covered in the first show were from the earlier part of Lou's career and — despite the fact that two gents were wearing Lou-ish leather jackets (Malin and Jon Spencer) — women seemed to do the freshest interpretations of the material. Felice Rosser did a killer “White Light, White Heat,” while Tammy Faye Starlight provided one of the standout performances by filtering Lou's song “Chelsea Girls” through her Nico impression. Her mocking-in-character the song's wordiness and the instrumental solos punctuating the piece made her turn only one of two comedy segments of the day (beside a later bit performed by Willem Dafoe — yes, you read that right, see below).

Jon Spencer came closest to offering the male equivalent to Tammy Faye, by taking off his belt and administering a Gerard Malanga-style whip-dance beating to his guitar during (what else?) “Venus in Furs.” The young-Lou songs kept coming, all rendered in delirious fashion (the later show was equally sublime but was more somber in tone). Guitarist Matt Sweeney did “I Wanna Boogie With You,” Lee Renaldo sang “Ocean,” the Bush Tetras rocked “Run Run Run,” Jenni Muldaur and Victoria Williams did an appropriately quirky “I'm Sticking with You,” J.G. Thirwell supplied a menacing “Men of Good Fortune," and Lenny Kaye put his own twist on “I'm Set Free.”

Fleming and Willner tackle a Reed rarity. photo: EG
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Willner himself joined Don Fleming for a VU rarity, “Temptation Inside Your Heart.” Fleming seemed to be adding Lou's own comments from the original bootleg recording of the song — the sign of a fan who's listened to a record several dozen times.

photo: EG
The rocker who does not age, David Johansen — who has looked to be in his mid-40s for the last two decades — sang a later Lou song, “I Believe in Love” from the Rock and Roll Heart LP).

The two standouts of the early show were Kembra Pfahler and her “Voluptuous Horror” friends naked (well, nearly) in body paint essaying one of Lou's sillier but catchy tunes, “Disco Mystic.” (The title is the only lyric — and in case we forgot that, a young lady carrying a giant sign with the two words emblazoned on it took center stage in the middle of the tune.)

Kembra Pfahler and her chromatic friends. photo: EG
The only thing that could possibly top that bizarre spectacle was the show's finale, the Velvets' noise-jam masterpiece “Sister Ray” performed by Yo La Tengo (who earlier performed “I Heard Her Call My Name”), half of Sonic Youth (the half that wasn't married to each other), and the other hand-picked house band members, with Kembra in red paint, her young-boy clone in blue paint, and Felice joining in as background dancers (backing vocals are not required on “Sister Ray” — if they did appear they wouldn't be heard anyway).

photo: EG
 The fact that anyone even attempted to cover that song is laudable, and Lee Renaldo and Ira Kaplan certainly did have a nice little guitar “battle” going on while Kenny Margolis filled in nicely on the organ.

The second live show was a reading of Reed's lyrics. This occurred during the afternoon period when the rain began and didn't stop until 9:45, a few minutes after the festivities were over (ain't it always the way?). This was perhaps the most unusual, as readings of rock lyrics always seem a bit “off,” since those familiar with the words in their natural context want to hear the music (granted, two musicians did play in low tones to accompany the readers).
Willem Dafoe amidst the umbrellas.
photo: drenched EG

This event was held in the Hearst Plaza in front of the Library of the Performing Arts, the worst place to see a performance on the LC campus, as you view the performers through a maze of leaves and branches (trees dot the Plaza, their willowy branches reaching down into the sight-lines of every audience member except those who stake out seats in the very first row).

Add to that a constant downpour, and it goes without saying that diehard Lou fans were the only folks who stuck it out. (Aside from a few celeb-gawpers who would spawn gills to see their indie-move faves.) Thus the distinct lack of photos from this part of the day’s events — it was interesting to see that none of the major outlets that reviewed the shows (Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Brooklyn Vegan) paid a penny for the pics taken by those in the first row (thus my joy in getting at least one photo in focus, not destroyed by the rain).

More's the pity, since this show contained both great and bizarre pairings of performer and lyric. In the latter category let me jump right to my choice for the most unusual person to recite a Lou lyric, Elizabeth Ashley. Laurie Anderson announced that the participants in the three shows were all friends of Lou's, and Ashley did indeed participate in the Raven album. Still, Ashley is an actress whose performing style harkens back to the “grand dames” of earlier eras of theater (think Tallulah, darling!).

Thus, when Ashley announced that she would be reading “The Black Angel's Death Song,” my brain pretty much exploded — here, the star of the incredibly strange Funhouse cult favorite Windows was reciting the most surreal lyric in the VU canon. (“And roverman's refrain of the sacrilege recluse/For the loss of a horse/Went the bowels and a tail of a rat/Come again, choose to go...”)
"Maggie the Cat" (aka Elizabeth Ashley). photo: EG
After Ashley's turn (she also performed “The Day John Kennedy Died” and “Guilty”), the notion of “Samantha” from Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall, reading Lou's lyrics didn't seem unusual at all. She seemed quite delighted to be tackling “The Power of Positive Drinking” and “Tripitena’s Speech/Who Am I?” Another actor whom one wouldn’t immediately identify with Lou Reed, Fisher Stevens (yes, he played Poe on the Raven LP , but his Short Circuit performance has defined him in the minds of those of a certain age) offered creditable performances of “Change” and two truly tortured tunes, “Sad Song,” and Kill Your Sons.”

Julian Schnabel — whose look perplexes me (is he trying to be Peter Ustinov or Theo Bikel?) — discussed his friendship with Lou (as he is wont to do) in between reciting “Rock Minuet,” “The Bed,” and “Sword of Damocles” (from an album I consider the most underrated Reed album, the superb Magic and Loss).*

Poet Anne Carson leavened the proceedings by acknowledging her “dull, monotone” delivery of poetry — of all the speakers, though, she was the one who honored Reed’s words the most, as she read the humorous number “Hookywooky” and perhaps the finest-ever meditation on the allure, comfort, and terror of drugs, “Heroin.”

Laurie Anderson (wearing what can only be described as a super-cute “pixie hat”) did a pitch-perfect reading of “A Dream,” written for Songs for Drella, in which Lou openly acknowledges the breach between himself and Warhol. Her turn was beautifully complemented by Steve Buscemi’s conversational take on “Walk on the Wild Side.” In his very capable hands the song became a kind of prose-poem, the type of thing a “survivor” of the Warhol scene would be saying to someone in the corner of a café or bar. (Buscemi also performed “Billy” and “Caroline Says.”)

Terrific renditions of some of Lou’s best NYC lyrics were delivered by Natasha Lyonne and Willem Dafoe. Dafoe brought life to the “Street Hassle” suite and the journalism-as-poetry classic “Dirty Boulevard.” He also dared to “play” Lou in a recreation of one of the many funny/cranky interviews Lou gave (this one from 1974 in Australia), with Carson as the clueless interviewer. Here’s the real thing:

Lyonne also got the chance to play Lou, as she read his dialogue from Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s underrated (sadly forgotten) film Blue in the Face (1995).

She also read “The Last American Whale” and an aptly Nu Yawk-ish version of “Coney Island Baby.” As the rain continued to douse us all (pissed off, but not deterred, we were…), it was onto the third show….*

The final show of the day was definitely conceived of as an affectionate celebration of Lou’s work. As noted, it was supposed to be a collection of his love songs but instead turned out to be a rather solid survey of his most emotional songs (the emotions left out were anger, which fueled a few of his memorable rockers, and dread, which produced the masterful “Waves of Fear”).

This particular show has been written up in various places across the Net, to the extent that the Brooklyn Vegan site had access to an official set list for the show. Thus, I don’t need to discuss the event as a whole for posterity (as I have done with Willner’s shows that haven’t been reviewed elsewhere). Despite the lousy weather, this show filled the Damrosch Park venue, whereas the first show was barely half full (NYCers are pretty lazy these days, and even the prospect of a great rock concert can’t get them to a free concert before noon).

So I want to focus solely on the highlights of the show. Of the women singers, Jenni Muldaur did a great rendition of the VU’s “Jesus,” Victoria Williams offered a quirky and tuneful “Satellite of Love,” Nona Hendrix did a rockin’ “Ride Sally Ride,” and guest star Lucinda Williams offered a gorgeous “country” rendition of “Pale Blue Eyes.”

As for the male rockers, Garland Jeffries did a great job with a song that isn’t exactly a classic (or all that musical), “My House” from The Blue Mask. David Johansen returned to offer up a great “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” accompanied by Bowie stalwart Earl Slick on guitar.

Along with a singing partner, John Cameron Mitchell showed that Lou’s songs can sound blissfully “Broadway” with wonderful harmonizing of “Turning Time Around” (a real, bona fide Reed love song from the Ecstasy album) and “I Found a Reason.” 

As could be expected, Laurie Anderson supplied the night’s quietest, most emotional Reed covers with her versions of “Sunday Morning” and “Doin' the Things That We Want To.” Her final performance was “Junior Daddy” from the Lulu album. Lou was truly “present” during this performance, as she and her fellow musicians accompanied his recorded vocal.

Lenny Kaye returned to close the show in perfect style with “Sweet Jane,” the only other song to be heard in both rock shows (Harper Simon sang it earlier). Kaye was an excellent choice to close out the day, since he was not only a colleague and contemporary of Lou’s, but is also a rocker who doubles as a writer (or is it the other way around?).
Anohni at the evening show. photo: EG
And while every participant distinguished themselves in one way or another, there was one indisputable “MVP.” Anohni (formerly Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons) possesses such a strikingly beautiful voice that her rendition of three Reed songs were without question the highlights of the night. Lou might’ve been the one who crafted the songs, but Anohni’s instrument is so overpoweringly emotional that her versions of “Femme Fatale,” “A New Age,” and especially “A Perfect Day,” were absolute knockouts.


The fact that hundreds of us didn’t leave in the incessant downpour isn’t just a testament to Lou’s music, it’s also a reflection of how well Anderson and Willner programmed the live shows. A few months back I felt uneasy and, frankly, somewhat bored watching the live stream of the three-hour tribute to Bowie at Radio City. In that instance I was watching songs I deeply love being unimaginatively covered by (mostly) inappropriate musical acts and was in the comfort of my home, but was bored silly.

At the three live shows that made up “The Bells” celebration, as miserable as the weather was, as uncomfortable as it was sitting being pelted by rain for four of the six and a half hours (spread out over a ten-hour span), I was never bored, thanks to creative programming, extremely talented performers, and good pairings of artist and material. Attending the shows led me to break out and re-listen to Lou LPs the next day — the ironclad proof of a good musical tribute…. 

*NOTE: For posterity’s sake, I should note that the other items read at the poetry event were “Halloween Parade” and “Venus in Furs”; also Lou’s meditation on his mentor Delmore Schwartz, “Andy’s Chest,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” (The first two were performed, I believe, by writer A.M. Homes and the last three by poet Anne Waldman
verification needed on this info.)

CREDIT where credit is due: The ad for Lou's Alice Tully Hall gig comes from the "Doom and Gloom From the Tomb" tumblr. That blogger has a link to an *amazing* slice of radio history: Lou playing records and answering phone calls (!) at WPIX-FM in May 1978. It's stunning, as Lou praises "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," says he loves Sandy Denny, plays a rare live version of "Street Hassle," and a novelty record with a Nixon impersonator doing a Watergate-themed rework of "Walk on the Wild Side." (!)

That particular insane link leads to this other time that Lou DJ'ed at WPIX, in 1979. Stunning stuff, including Lou going on Lenny-overdrive as he complains about rock reviewers (sounds like he's about to launch into "Father Flotsky's Triumph" at any moment), plays both Nico and Bobby Short (!) records, and welcomes a very special guest (of Welsh extraction...)
Listen to it!

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