Sydney Festival: Lou Reed’s Berlin featuring Lou Reed, Antony Hegarty and Sharon Jones.
Also Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Dusseldorf, Berlin, London, Lyon, Arles, Rome, Arezzo, Turin and Arezzo. (European tour dates below.)
UPDATE: new dates in UK and Italy...
Lou Reed began at the end -- “Staring at my picture book” -- with ‘Sad Song’, and flicked through the pages of Berlin, his 1973 follow-up to Transformer.
33 1/3-odd years after it release, it’s hard to comprehend why this record so confounded Reed’s fans and the music press. (Famously, Rolling Stone wrote it off as a career killer and bid him a snide “Goodbye Lou.”)
Yes, Berlin is a weirdly overblown album, musically and instrumentally, for such a dark tale of domestic violence and despair. And, sure, we’ve become inured to tales of depression, overdose and suicide, of lives spiraling out of control...
Perhaps it’s more illuminating to contrast Reed’s ‘The Bed’ with David Bowie’s ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’, from Ziggy Stardust (1972).
Here’s Lou Reed:
This is the place where she lay her head
When she went to bed at night
And this is the place our children were conceived
Candles lit the room
And this is the place where she cut her wrists
and fateful night…
And David Bowie:
Time takes a cigarette,
puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger,
then another finger,
then your cigarette…
You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clock waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don’t eat when you’ve lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you’re a rock ’n’ roll suicide
Bowie’s refrain -- which echoes Brel -- is: “No, love, you’re not alone.” Reed’s is a bitterly ironic: “Oh, oh, oh, what a feeling.”
In performance, the B-side of Berlin is extraordinarily affecting, from the reprise of ‘Caroline Says’ through to the bitter end. And Reed, visibly, was affected by it.
While the performances of the A-side songs (‘Berlin’, ‘Lady Day’, ‘Men of Good Fortune’ &c.) were impressive, occasionally commanding, their interest was more anthropological than dramatic.
Who would pass up the chance of watching Reed in the flesh? From just ten metres away? Even in his mid 60s, tottering like an old codger, with that mask-like rubbery face -- looking like an extra from Planet of the Apes -- Reed is an overwhelmingly masculine presence. Authoritative. Indomitable. He’s still lean and fit. When he stands, he looks anchored, like Bowie in baggy trousers, as if the top third of his body could pivot independently of the planted hips and trunk. His upper-cut strumming was precise and, mostly, clean.
The fist pumping (in ‘Men of Good Fortune’) was believable. Reed even made archaic lines like “This is a bum trip” (from ‘Caroline Says II’) sound natural.
But, I’ve gotta say, the brass and strings and the 12-strong youth choir added nothing but superfluous pomp. Repeatedly, through the course of the concert, potentially powerful climaxes were dissipated in icky waves or brassy riffs reminiscent of Jethro Tull circa Passion Play.
These three concerts are billed as world premiere performances of Reed’s narrative album. Strictly, they’re part of a world premiere season, as Reed and his band performed Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse mid December. Given that the choir and some of the musicians are local additions, the performance was creditably tight.
Producer Hal Willner -- and, indeed, the Sydney Festival -- has a keen eye for musical coups like this one. Willner’s just as proud of Bugs Bunny on Broadway concerts as he is of Came So Far For Beauty, the Leonard Cohen tribute concerts that lined up a breathtaking array of superstars: Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, The Handsome Family, Laurie Anderson, Antony Hegarty and many many others.
Berlin is another such ‘event’. If not strictly once-in-a-lifetime, one feels certain that they’re once in a continent.
Look at the line-up. On backing vocals: Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and funk princess Sharon Jones. Directed and designed by filmmaker Julian (Basquiat) Schnabel. Steve Hunter, who played on the original recording, on guitar. Rob Wasserman on electric double bass. God, I’ve even heard of the lighting designer. (I’m sure Jennifer Tipton has Twyla Tharp credits somewhere in her CV.)
But, finally, what made this concert something more than a flick through Lou Reed’s hyper-coloured picture book was the trio of songs offered as an encore to the main content.
Jones let rip in ‘Sweet Jane’, a song from Velvet Underground days. Oh so simple in its conception. Immortal, too.
Next, Reed backed Antony, as he did in 2003, in a drum-less version of ‘Candy Says’. Antony did something he hasn’t done in the last two years in Australia, since he sang Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Guests’ and ‘If it be your will’ at the Opera House. He channeled the song. He was possessed by its spirit. Forgive this lapse into New Age hokiness. There’s just no other way of describing what he does. It’s knife-edge stuff. But it’s something he only seems to do with other people’s material.
The set closed with a terrific version of Reed’s ‘Rock Minuet’, from Ecstasy.
Reed has something of a reputation as a monster. (Simon Hattenstone puts a very strong case indeed!) But one can’t help but respect and admire an artist who is so obviously in awe of his musicians and backing vocalists. So, at the very least, Reed is a modest monster.
Berlin, as it happens, was a dead-end road in rock and roll history. But it’s a cul-de-sac worthy of a heritage listing. Now, for Lou Reed and a small, stripped-back band...
UPDATE: 2007 European Tour Dates:
June 18: Brussels Forest National, Avenue Victor Rousseau
June 20 and 21: Amsterdam, Heineken Music Hall
June 23: Paris, Palais de Congress
June 25: Dusseldorf Philipshalle
June 26: Berlin Tempodrom
June 29: Manchester International Festival, Manchester Apollo
June 30 and July 1: London, Hammersmith Apollo
July 03: Lyon, Grand Théâtre Romain de Fourvière
July 04: Arles, Theatre Antique
July 06: Rome, Santa Cecilia Hall, Il Parco della Musica
July 08: Arezzo Art Festival, Piazza Grande
July 10: Milan, Teatro degli Arcimboldi
July 11: Turin, Villa Venaria
July 12: Cremona, Piazza Stradivari
July 14: Cagliari Rocce Rosse Festival, Anfiteatro Romano