|Velvet Underground, The - Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII|
|Written by Dan MacIntosh|
|Tuesday, 24 January 2006|
It’s miraculous that this reunion concert happened, and that we now have DVD evidence of it. The Velvet Underground, as a working unit, was just as dysfunctional as the desperate characters in their oftentimes shocking songs. This show was captured in France because the band broke up – again – before that tour even made it to the States. It had been scheduled to open a few dates for U2, which would have been an amazing pairing, especially considering the influence Lou Reed’s music has had upon Bono. But rather than focusing on “the dream that could have been,” we should be thankful to have this fine audio/video document to remember the band by.
REM guitarist Peter Buck has said that while Velvet Underground may not have sold too many records back in its heyday, everybody who bought one started their own band. A bit of an inside joke, perhaps, but with a lot of truth to it. It’s nearly impossible to overestimate the act’s influence on other musicians; so many over the years have spoken of VU’s inspiration. In the late ‘60s, when music about peace, love and flower power was all the rage, the Velvet Underground was recording songs about death, sadomasochism and heroin addiction. Obviously, they went to the offbeat of a different drum. It’s difficult to imagine today’s alternative music without them. This band may not have sounded punk the way, say, Iggy & the Stooges did during the pre-punk era, but they certainly had the whole anti-social attitude down.
This concert includes a balanced selection of both familiar and not-so-familiar VU songs. Naturally, “Sweet Jane,” “Rock ‘N” Roll” and “Femme Fatale” are all included here. But the mostly instrumental “Hey, Mr. Rain” and “Coyote” are also on the set list.
Based upon this DVD viewpoint, the Velvet Underground is not an exciting band to watch. All the members are relatively statuesque while on stage. Guitarist Sterling Morrison mostly looks bored throughout. Lou Reed looks like a college professor in his glasses. John Cale, with his odd haircut, stands out the most. Drummer Moe Tucker, who drums standing up much of the time and plays her bass drum sideways like a kettledrum, also captures some attention. Nobody moves much, or makes any faces. This is pure playing and little else.
Instrumentally, Cale is the most multifaceted member. This show opens with him playing violin on the woozy, deviant sex number “Venus in Furs.” He plays piano, and here takes over lead vocal duties during “I’m Waiting for the Man,” which was originally sung by Reed. He returns to the violin again for “Hey, Mr. Rain,” which is a mostly instrumental, primarily avant-garde, quasi-classical workout. Its sound mixes Eastern raga music with free jazz, which makes for something truly unique.
Although all four musicians represented here are original Velvet Underground members, the band is still missing one person: Nico. Nico died of a drug overdose – not surprisingly – long before this reunion ever took place. She is most missed during songs she originally sang lead on, like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and especially “Femme Fatale,” because she was the original femme fatale.
Lou Reed sings lead more than anybody else, but then he wrote the lyrics to almost all VU songs. He also takes the lion’s share of the guitar solos. Morrison, however, plays the distinctively simple lead lines on “Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Reed, like other rock icons Neil Young and Bob Dylan, is not a great natural singer. But like those two, Reed’s unusual voice – consistently flat – can still be oddly pleasant in spite of itself. Its drollness might be why he could/can get away with singing about such taboo subjects as smack addiction on “Heroin,” or giving the foreplay-by-play of “Venus in Furs.”
Although the Velvet Underground are most famous for their evil adventurousness, it could also be quite beautiful. Their ballads, like “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” combine sweet melodies with mostly dark lyrics. While there’s an unsettling weirdness about songs like “Venus in Furs,” as well as an out of control momentum driving “White Light/White Heat,” this band could also play straight rock exceedingly well. “Sweet Jane,” with its empathetic lyrical narrative, has one of the greatest hummable melodies in all of rock music history, and “Rock ‘N’ Roll” is one of the rare songs that speaks about a specific musical style, yet doesn’t totally suck.
Disappointingly, there aren’t band interviews included here. It would have been enjoyable to hear band members talk about what led up to this unlikely reunion. This is especially sad because Sterling Morrison succumbed to cancer shortly after this concert was filmed. One wonders why this project's producers didn’t also throw in, say, some old original performances of the band, for contrast’s sake if nothing else. A documentary about the making of this DVD would have also been nice as well. About the only bonus here, if you can even call it that, is the addition of a song called “Coyote,” which can only be accessed by selecting songs individually.
Another disappointment is this DVD’s short 85-minute length. This is a visual document of a 22-track CD, which was originally released back in 1993. There were many great Velvet songs left off of this DVD, such as “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “The Black Angel Death Song” and “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” which appeared on the original two-disc CD edition. Why couldn’t they have included all of them?
Nevertheless, it’s still a gift to have this visual document of the Velvet Underground’s last stand. Such a video product is especially appreciated because this is a band that came along well before the advent of rock videos or even the VHS revolution. Unlike a lot of other ‘60s/’70s musical heroes, the Velvet Underground rarely participated in the rock festival circuit at the time. So while a lot of these groups can be re-experienced at the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock, for instance, Velvet Underground just didn’t run in those circles.
The sound here is just fine. This is relatively straight rock and roll, with few other colorings. There is clarity and purity to the sound recording of this DVD.
Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII is essential for fans of the band and highly recommended to anyone who wants a complete history of rock music. Artists who celebrate what’s good about life are far too many to mention, but those who explore the stinky and sticky stuff underneath it all are few and far between. The Velvet Underground wandered around in this moral darkness, so you don’t have to. Like Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” the Velvet Underground is the musical leader of the dark side.