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ONE OF the only things missing at the Lou Reed concert this past Friday night, surprisingly enough, was glitter. In fact, the sole trace manifested itself in three heavily made-up girls clothed in black, one of whom my brother mistook for a distaff Lou Reed. Prior to the concert, I envisioned the normally lackluster interior of the Orpheum illuminated by a gilded aura; an aura emanating from the regal attire of an audience which was jaded by overtones of bi- and even transsexuality. I had almost hoped for a Cinderella-like transformation of the Orpheum into an aggrandizement of Reed's virtual birthplace, Max's Kansas City. But this chimeric figment vanished with the realization that Boston is just not New York.
The crowd was an impatient one and seemed only marginally interested in the musical dabblings of the opening act, Triumvirat. The group's leader, however, won the audience over with a couple of numbers featuring impressive work on keyboards. He achieved an excellent rapport between his electric keyboards and array of synthesizers whose tone quality was among the best I have yet to hear at a live set. What resulted in his being the center of attention was not his highly proficient synthesizer manipulations, but rather the rotation of his eyeballs which left only the whites of his eyes to be seen.
Although Triumvirat's performance was actually faultless, they left no more than a slight impression upon me due to their obvious resemblance to more highly acclaimed bands: Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer for example. Innovation is a quality that Triumvirat lacked--a quality that nowadays is sufficient to make or break a band.
Triumvirat's set lasted about forty-five minutes, the last ten minutes of which was marked by a noticeable tenseness in the audience that lasted through the assemblage of Reed's sound set. Eventually the lights were dimmed and three silhouettes took their place beside their instruments. As the flood lights were switched on, the trio ripped into a rollicking instrumental. Normally, this would have sufficed to release a portion of the audience's anxious anticipation. Instead, the reverse was true; as the tension of the music built, so did the crowd's. The band sailed into the familiar chords of the immortal "Sweet Jane" at which point the anxiousness of the spectators was resolved in a rush of emotion. The audience reached its climax with the first couple of verses and instantly, everyone stood up on his or her seats. The spots fell down upon the main mike next to which stood an emaciated Lou Reed, clad in a sleeveless black T-shirt and worn-out jeans. In addition, his almost platinum-bleached hair and coal-black sunglasses lent him an ominous air, the total embodiment of all Reed has ever represented.
His material was for the greater part taken off his latest release, Sally Can't Dance, though he also included such standards as "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Heroin," and "Rock and Roll" from his days with The Velvet Underground. Reed's vocals, which were even more Dylanesque than usual, were accompanied by queenly dancing, spasmodic convulsions, and hesitant twirlings of the microphone. Highlighting his stage show was the random interjection of obscenities often followed by the violent felling of the microphone stand, which actually constituted one of the lighter sides of the concert. Whenever the mike stand came crashing to the ground, an obedient roadie would diligently high-tail it across the stage in order to reset it, in perfect likeness to a ballboy during a championship tennis match.
THERE WAS SOMETHING about the concert that missed as a whole and whether it was Reed's fault or his band's is pure speculation. The band was a gifted and tempered one and contrasted strongly to the gritty, nerve-grating sound of the Velvets. But in retrospect, that type of coarseness would not make it today, if for no other reason than the size of concert halls. Let's face it--the Velvets were a hard-driving rock and roll band that relied on the intimacy of a club like Max's fully to project their image and encourage audience participation which usually expressed itself in dancing. One look at the Traffic concert at the Garden should suffice as the reason why the Reed performance was not billed as a dance concert.
I think Reed prophetically foresaw this complication a little less than a year ago, the proof of which was the enlistment of a core of superb studio musicians whose ability was evident on Rock and Roll Animal, a live recording of one of Reed's concert dates at New York's Academy of Music. This divergence from the Velvet's sound presented Reed in a new light, perhaps disappointing to a few Velvet diehards but generally well-received by critics and fans alike. Thus the formula was simple for all future tours: back up Reed's vocal performance with a tight set of musicians that could attract equal amounts of audience attention when called upon to do so. The remainder of the time their sole obligation would be to keep the audience rocking while providing the perfect complement to Reed's vocal interpretations.
So why did this formula miss the second time around? It's difficult to say. It was probably not due to the band's lack of talent. At the least, they handled their instruments adeptly. The arrangements, however, were noticeably inferior to those on Rock and Roll Animal, particularly "White Light/White Heat" and "Rock and Roll." The lead guitarist concentrated mostly on rhythm which left a void in many of the arrangements. Finally, the give and take between Reed and his band during the Academy of Music sessions was more pronounced--the band was given a share of the limelight during the instrumental breaks but quickly crept into the background the moment Reed's vocals would re-emerge. Thus the musicians had identities of their own but no mistake would be made as to whom the people came to see. Reed unquestionably remained the dominant force throughout.
Reed's present group suffered from such a severe loss of identity that even when it was their turn to shine, they were unable to burst forth into the foreground. In this way, they lingered on as a talented, but faceless, back-up band.
I can't say that this was a bad concert. Nor could I say that it was even to some extent a disappointment had I not heard Reed's previous recorded live effort. I can only regret not having been one of the Academy of Music's privileged few who witnessed the birth of a rock and roll animal.
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