Lou Reed is getting back to the 1960s on his latest tour. He is revisiting songs by his former band the Velvet Underground, snarling out cautionary tales of drug-taking and sadomasochism.
Light entertainment it is not.
The songs of an enfant terrible are now performed by a 69-year-old elder statesman of rock, still dressed in jeans, a leather jacket and a white t-shirt. His voice is as rich and as laced with bitter life as ever.
The show, being wheeled out across Europe, is heavy with growling repetition and sordid grandeur.
The U.K. shows are typical: At the HMV Apollo Hammersmith, Reed’s current seven-piece group sets up metronomic, mid-tempo grooves, building up the intensity.
Reed, who has just announced that he will be working with hard rockers Metallica, is in an uncompromising mood.
Crowd pleasing has never been his natural forte. His first band, mentored by Andy Warhol, was influential with its raw songs about prostitution and deviancy. The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records at first, and Reed sweetened the music for the 1972 solo album “Transformer.”
He studiously avoids that record’s two signature hits “A Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day” -- a track which has entered the strange saccharine netherworld of the cliched cover, a staple of under-inspired musicians everywhere. Neither does he play anything of “Metal Machine Music”, a perversely genius 1975 album, recently remastered, featuring one hour of howling electronic feedback.
Reed isn’t a musician to use three chords when two will do (a concession: minimalist composer La Monte Young, a big influence on the Velvets, thought nothing of composing with barely two notes). The influence of the more contemporary New York composer John Zorn, with whom Reed has recently worked, can be heard in the frantic sax squawks and the dark Latin rhythm of “Smalltown.”
Over all this, Reed spins sharp tales of the gutter. “Ecstasy” rides waves of noise. A cover of John Lennon’s “Mother” is a howl of hurt and confusion.
The Velvet Underground songs steal the show. The whips and boots of “Venus in Furs” are matched by a feral electric violin drone that slices through the ear. It’s followed by a battered, acoustic, never more beautiful “Sunday Morning”.
Evidence, if it were needed, that Reed has lost none of his perverse musical power.
Lou Reed’s tour plays dates in Italy and France though July 26. Information: http://www.loureed.com/
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)