+ OKKERVIL RIVER
Highline Ballroom, New York City
April 30, 2007
By GEOFF GINSBERG
Who else but Lou Reed would have a back catalog that rivals that of Bob Dylan, The Stones - anyone you would care to mention really - and not touch it? No one, that’s who. Lou Reed, as usual, didn’t do it like he’s s’posed to. Not only is he well into his 60's and not an oldies act, Ol’ Uncle Lou didn’t so much as throw the crowd a bone. Is there anyone else in the music world so consistently daring and adventurous? I doubt it. Since Lou had released an album of wind sounds just a week before this show there was some trepidation that we would be spending the big bucks, driving to NYC, and being packed into some dive to hear wind noises. I’ll admit I was a little nervous.
After finding the place in the newly trendy meat-packing district we went in and practically just walked up to the stage. We figured if Okkervil River (the opening act) was tolerable we would try to stick it out in front. Overkill River is a bad band name, but Okkervil River is a really bad band name and they kind of lived up to it. In fact they actually provided some comic relief. The musicians were really good, but the singer/acoustic guitarist was just terrible. Angst ridden, hair in the face, earnest, and oh so wordy - the dude was truly laughable. To say he’s no Bright Eyes would be a drastic understatement. And I felt sorry for the band members because as you watched them watch him, they really seemed to think, “This guy is my ticket.” Good luck!
Anyway, it gets to be Lou Reed time and I was stunned by the fact that while the room was now totally packed, in front of the stage it was still pretty comfortable. Lou had not one, but two fancy keyboard set-ups with computers etc. My concern level about 2 hours of wind noise escalated. A short time later Reed appeared in trademark black sleeveless tee shirt with his electric guitar and his band - Michael Rathke on guitar, Steve Hunter on guitar, Jane Scarpantoni playing cello and Rob Wasserman on stand-up electric bass. No drummer.
Oddly, the show was built around the 15 year old album Magic & Loss - a regular laugh riot of a record (actually, considering the subject matter, it does have a few good laugh lines) about losing someone you love to an early death. The opening “Dorita” was nothing more than Reed blasting off some atonal notes as if to say “Don’t worry, we are here to rock.” Then into “What’s Good” which, if you haven’t heard it is a classic. During “What’s Good” Lou motioned for the sound man to turn up his vocal mike. The guy was looking at the soundboard when Lou made his gesture and he didn’t see it. Lou barked, “Turn up my vocal! Watch me!! FUCK!!! May I refer you to a line from Lou’s live album Take No Prisoners: “I do Lou Reed better than anybody.” After upbraiding the guy, Lou turned and had a wry, almost sheepish look on his face as if to say “Oh my, I am grumpy.” He wasn’t mad, he was just being Lou Reed. I was highly amused. Then Lou asked the light man to turn off the smoke machine saying something along the lines of “I didn’t quit smoking to play on a stage full of smoke.” Needless to say, the soundman and the rest of the band kept their eyes glued to Lou for the rest of the night.
Next up, a deep album cut from 1989's New York record, “The Last Great American Whale.” “Whale,” a scathing spoken word indictment of American idiocy, would be the oldest song performed at this show.
On those first songs Hunter and Rathke were turned down relatively low, strumming away. Lou was on stun level. As they began the next song, “Gassed & Stoked,” Reed whispered to Hunter something along the lines of “Can you make yourself louder?” Hunter started fiddling with something on the floor but the roadie just came out and turned his amp up. Hunter pumped out a couple of chords and Lou literally jumped back in surprise. Hunter was loud enough now! In the middle of the song Hunter took his first solo of the night. As he played brilliantly, Lou Reed was watching in amazement. He made eye contact with Rathke, as well as audience members and his eyes were saying “Can you believe how good this guy is? This is great!!” Lou was psyched, and as a longtime fan of Berlin, Rock & Roll Animal, Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper etc., so was I.
After a nice reading of “Trade In,” another obscurity, this time from the Set The Twilight Reeling disc and Sword of Damocles from M&L, Lou and Mike Rathke made their way over to those keyboard setups. They then did two songs from the Reed/Cale Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella. Ironically both numbers were songs John Cale sang (or spoke) on the album. “A Dream” was hilarious. It is excerpts from Warhol’s diary spoken by Reed with full Warhol intonation during key passages. It eventually leads up to Warhol going on and on about how much he hates Lou Reed, what an awful person Lou reed is, how Lou Reed got married and did not invite him etc. All read by Lou with an unapologetic sense of humor. The very fact that he was doing the song was the apology. “Faces and Names” was even weirder. Lou was goofing around at the keyboard and singing like a robot. Yep, you read right. While John Cale readily admitted that Reed did most of the work on Drella, “Faces and Names” definitely sounds more like one of John Cale’s compositions musically. Interesting.
At various points during the show Lou would arrange on the spot. He would motion Wasserman to pluck harder, or tell Rathke to slow it down or speed it up a bit. To have such a birds-eye view of all this, and in relative comfort no less, was a privilege. And when Hunter was soloing Lou was consistently blown away. At one point Hunter had basically played his solo, done it all, and he looks up only to see Reed motioning him to keep going. Problem was he had done it all - there was no where else to go. So he shredded the strings. Jane Scarpentoni fattened the sound and played the occasional psychotic solo of her own. A Lou Reed show is and always has been very much about musicianship. I mean, during the heyday of punk Reed was playing with jazz musicians. He likes good musicians and his music lends itself to great players playing great. And I should not forget to mention that Lou Reed, himself a pretty fair guitarist, played many awesome solos as well. His playing is at the core of the whole deal. The other musicians are great because he lets them be great.
When Reed finally got to “Ecstasy” I was relieved to finally hear something immediately recognizable! For those unaware, “Ecstasy” is unquestionably one of Lou Reed’s best songs ever, and for that matter, a damn fine album. Get it now, thank me later. Hunter played a snaky, jazzy solo for this one. Lou was ecstatic. Later in the song, around the 12 minute mark, Lou unleashed his most devastating solo of the night. Somehow he is atonal and all about tone at the same time. It makes no sense, but it sure works.
Another deep album cut, “Baton Rouge,” led into the closing, epic, “Magic & Loss.” For this the band was joined by avant garde saxophonist John Zorn and as he played once again Reed was looking around as if to say, “Can you believe this? I can’t believe this!” Zorn uses his entire body to get the crazy sounds out of his saxophone - he is amazing to watch. Far from just squonking, Zorn played stuff that belonged in the songs and gave the music another, threatening, ominous layer.
As with the performances of the "Berlin" album last year, Lou closed the show with “Rock Minuet,” from Ecstasy. “Minuet” is in the “Street Hassle” tradition of extreme psychosexual depravity in the form of poetry and high art. At the Berlin concert they played it straight and it seemed an odd choice for a closing number. At this show, a truly epic version made a much better impression. It deserved to be a show closer.
This show was noteworthy on a number of levels. First, how many artists in their 60's take risks like this? If you saw the Stones, Dylan or for that matter The Stooges and they did a whole show made up of obscurities from the last few albums there would be a riot. It is just not done. In this case, no one seemed to have a problem with it, probably because the show was a revelation from beginning to end. There was no time to think about what could’ve or should’ve been. There was just what was. Even the knucklehead who goes to every Lou Reed show and finds me so he can yell “Vicious!!” or “Heroin!!” in my ear during the quiet parts was not there. Secondly, like good jazz (if that is not too much of an oxymoron) it was tight and loose at the same time. Perfectly played but with a lot of improvisation. Reed is constantly growing artistically and doing the unexpected. Somehow he gets away with it. Who else but Lou Reed could pull that off? Who else would try? Not a living soul, that’s who.
Last Great American Whale
Gassed and Stoked
Sword of Damocles
Faces and Names
Who Am I
Magic and Loss
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