"I want to explain how you
can make a career out of three chords," Lou Reed told the crowd on Sunday
night at the start of a gripping show at Skyline Stage on Navy Pier.
The venerated godfather of punk proceeded to illustrate how the Velvet
Underground's classic "Sweet Jane" is actually four chords, not three. But
his point was well-taken: Reed has always been a master of doing more with
On tour to support the sprawling double album "The Raven," Reed is
playing with what is essentially a postmodern chamber group, drawing on the
able accompaniment of his longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, guitarist Mike
Rathke, cellist Jane Scarpantoni and the soulful backing vocalist Anthony.
While the group suffered at times from the lack of percussive
drive--Saunders' occasional pounding on an electronic drum pad was no
substitute for the Maureen Tucker-style metronomic pulse that has always
served Reed best--the 2-1/2-hour set was intense nonetheless, especially
when the star cut loose with one of his trademark overdriven guitar solos.
Celebrating the recent release of yet another career-spanning
compilation, "NYC Man," Reed dug deep into his back catalog and pulled out
several songs that fans haven't heard him in play in years, if ever.
"How Do You Think It Feels" from the 1973 concept album "Berlin" was a
haunting tour de force. The title track of 1978's "Street Hassle" was a
chilling William S. Burroughs-inspired monologue about a drug overdose that
benefitted from the wall of sawing strings. "The Day John Kennedy Died," a
sleeper from 1982's "The Blue Mask," found Reed recalling that fateful day
in November 1963 from his perspective as a student at Syracuse University.
And the Velvet Under-ground was well-represented with some surprising
choices, including a revved-up version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" and a
lovely reading of the idyllic "Sunday Morning."
If not exactly the wannabe Lenny Bruce of his live comedy album, "Take No
Prisoner," it was an unusually loose and warm Reed who offered funny
commentary on these songs and generous praise for his bandmates. He was
especially kind to Saunders, who can be a distracting showboater with his
high-end bass solos. But the kudos were well-deserved by Scar-pantoni (an
ace session player who has added cello to recordings by Bob Mould, R.E.M.
and Kristin Hersh), and she stole the show with a frenzied solo during the
Velvets' ode to sadomasochistic sex, "Venus in Furs."
The set was not without its laughable artistic pretensions. Reed twice
brought out his traveling tai chi instructor to strike a series of martial
arts poses (it's apparently a current obsession of his), and his audacious
rewriting of Edgar Allan Poe on the title track of his new album (which he
admitted has been a commercial flop) was simply unforgivable.
Poe is an American icon, and 154 years after his death, he doesn't need
any help from Reed or anyone else to remain relevant.
At the same time, Reed underscored that he is every bit the giant in his
field that Poe was in his. A century and a half from now, lovers of vibrant
and challenging rock 'n' roll will no doubt still be listening to and
learning from many of the songs that he played on Sunday night, and they
will envy those of us who were there to hear them live.