Lou Reed – Berlin: Live At St.Anne's Warehouse

2009-04-21 08:50
Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse
Queen, Meat Loaf and Roger Waters excused, there's a reason why you seldom see rock operatic reanimations outside of the musical theatre circuit. Whether it's Bohemian Rhapsody, Bat Out of Hell, The Who's Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar or yes, even Pink Floyd's The Wall, long-winded rock opuses have little contemporary musical currency other than as relics from an epoch when rock was o-ding on its own conceptual attempts to become classical music.

Lou Reed's 1973 concept album, Berlin is no exception. While a symphonic rock odyssey that eavesdrops into the emotional meltdown of a pair of drug-addicts has its obvious thematic titillations in the age of Oprah, the fact that this psychodrama almost derailed his solo career back in the 70s should come as a caveat for any listener unprepared for 70 minutes of earnest rock 'n roll abstraction.

Hardcore fans will have no problems checking their denial in at the door though. Especially since, a de-and-reconstruction of his original songbook has always been the modus operandi for a rock 'n roll auteur like Lou. After the rather awkward experience of hearing a choir chanting "happy birthday" in the intro, it's straight into the revisionist storytelling session.

In case you missed it under all the original's strings and things, a sparse reading of "Berlin" uncovers the Kurt Weill styled cabaret song at the core of a simple piano ballad blues. Next, "Lady Day" has Lou riding a carnival of venomous electric guitar riffs, with a boozy brass embellishment that suggests Nick Cave might've based some of his early Bad Seeds blueprint on such a musical theatre of the grotesque. It's unrepentantly dramatic stuff. "Men of Good Fortune" is an ominously fuzzed in guitar fest that has guitarist Steve Hunter running some of Bob Quine's axe-murdering voodoo down while a symphonic soul backing chorus provides the perfect foil for Lou to do his best Brechtian narrator spiel in what remains one of his most memorable working class hero fantasies.

Unfortunately "Caroline Says I" is given a less successful makeover, shooting its lyrical load in a prematurely pompous rock operatic ejaculation. It's the unvarnished re-contetxualisations that work best. "How Do You Think It Feels?" strips away the glam Bowie varnish of the Berlin original to reveal a slow motion funk rock workout cut from the same black and bruised blues cloth as Lou's last really great albums and Street Hassle (1978) and The Blue Mask (1982). And "Caroline Says Part II" is retuned into an edgy acoustic guitar, piano and strings-haunted ballad that nails the psychology of a bathtub babe's suicide. Lou delivers a master class in 'blank poetic' phrasing here, rolling syllables between verses like his hero Dylan, and really croaking up the angst during Antony from the Johnson's 'castrato' warbled refrain of "it's so cold in Alaska".

It's Antony who almost steals the show with his impossibly fragile falsetto on a sublime encore rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" which adds a poignantly emotive punch to the Broadway bombast of closing strings 'n guitar crescendo "Sad Song". Its emotional intimacy is also the perfect sucker punch for the epic "Rock Minuet" (2000s) which implodes from a cinematic ballad into a celebration of early Velvets atonalism. By the time Lou rocks out with a country fried rendition of all-time classic "Sweet Jane" you're left wondering where you can pick up a copy of director Julian Schnabel's movie of the concert.

Lou Reed's re-animation of this 'cult' 1973 commercial corpse is a must-have bit of memorabilia for die-hard fans. But as a snapshot of what the ex-Velvet Underground auteur is capable of live, it's a brilliant, but blemished rock operatic remembrance of things past.

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Chris Roper 2009/04/21 8:51 AM
Saw Lou Reed live two years ago, just with two bass players, and he did a jazzed version of All Tomorrow's Parties. Fantastic. He is a legend.
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