State Theatre, Sydney
September 4, 2003

Believe it. Lou Reed’s return to Australian stages is nothing short of stunning. Writing this, 12 hours after the end of the opening show of his 2003 Australian tour, the tingles are still running up and down the spine.

Where to begin…

Great shows have epic moments and this one came midway through the set, as cellist Jane Scarpantoni took to her instrument with a savage fury in “Venus in Furs”. S & M never sounded so good. Lou’s admiration was palpable.

Lou’s last trip to these shores was in October 2000. Great show, drawn from his “Ecstasy” album which was current at the time, but the scarcity of “classic” back catalogue material offended many. This time around a good-humoured Lou revisited the past with a good sprinkling of retrospective material (“Sweet Jane”, “What a Feeling”, "The Bed", “Street Hassle”), as well as a couple of selections from his current Edgar Allan Poe tribute, “The Raven”. I’m unfamiliar with that disc but, as sometime I-94 Bar reviewer Geoff Ginsberg observed at a US show recently, you can wear the contemporary stuff when the whole gig is this good.

I had the benefit of hearing an audience recording of an American show from earlier on this tour so was (I thought) reasonably prepared for whatever Lou might deliver. Not quite. The between-song patter and the false start to “Sweet Jane” (the opening song) was replicated, giving rise to fears that this would be a show that lacked spontaneity. The omnipresent teleprompter was also a bit of a worry. Nevertheless, I shouldn't have worried. As rigid as the set list might have been there was ample room for all the players to stretch out. Which they did, all night.

This show exceeded expectations. Working beautifully in synch with a stripped-back, drummer-less band (virtuoso bassist Fernando Saunders, guitarist Mike Rathke, the aforementioned Jane Scarpantoni and mono-monikered soprano Antony on vocals) produced a sound that was rich and amazingly intense. Versatility was a byword with Rathke playing some soaring guitar, as well as keyboards and guitar synth. Saunders switched from fretless to upright bass and back, adding occasional accents on syndrums, and even grabbed the spotlight briefly to showcase a song of his own. The doo-wop vocal stylings he and Antony added to numbers like "Tell It To Your Heart" and "Dirty Boulevarde" were a delight.

Now in my book, rock and roll is something best practised standing up. Antony spent most of the show sitting in the best seat in the house (just to Lou’s left), beating time with his hand on his (own) left knee and looking, if not sounding, a little Jeff St John-like. When he took the lead on a stunning “Candy Says”, I realised why he'd spent the lion’s share of the gig parked on his gluteus maximus. Antony stands a good half a body length taller than Reed and might have been a bit of a distraction.

Speaking of distractions, Master Ren Guang Yi’s appearance on stage in a tai chi role (I kid you not) midway through a funkified but disturbingly cabaret “All Tomorrow’s Parties” had a few people scratching their heads. Then you realise that a whip dancing Gerard Malanga added the same visual element to the Velvet Underground’s earliest shows all those years ago. It’s still bemusing to think that Master Ren flew all this way to display his moves for two-and-a-half songs, but he probably takes Lou through his daily workout and it all added to the ever-so avant garde feel of proceedings. Got a sneaking suspicion Dave Graney would also approve.

If you have doubts about catching any of the remaining shows, lose them. You’ll regret it and will have to wait a long time for a better rock and roll experience. - The Barman

Lou Reed plays Brisbane tonight, Melbourne on September 8 & 9, Newcastle on September 12 and returns to the Sydney at the Enmore Theatre on September 11. Ticketing information here.