Lou Reed at Skyline Stage


June 17, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

"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 less.

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.