Lou Reed, Royal Festival Hall, London

4.00

 

“Was it too quiet for you, asshole?” Lou Reed enquires, putting all the dripping contempt he can muster, which is plenty, into demolishing a fan who unwisely, ironically yelled “Louder!” after tonight’s first song.

That was “Brandenburg Gate”, from last year’s derided Reed/Metallica collaboration Lulu. During it, he sings, “I would cut my legs and tits off/ When I think of Boris Karloff,” in a voice reverberating at the heart of his band’s heavy, sharply cutting sound, and raises his 70-year-old, gym-toned arms, inviting obeisance. In his confrontational way, Reed is in a good mood.

He’s here at the invitation of this year’s Meltdown curator, Antony, an old friend, but there are no frills or guests tonight. Instead, he ranges through his career, often alighting at obscure corners. The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” drops down to contemplative strums before brewing into a storm of high, needling notes, as Reed calls the drug his “wife”, and the band’s climactic thunder imitates it pumping into his system, finishing with soft, dawning relief. Saxophonist Ulrich Krieger bends to the floor, squawking wildly into the monitors, part of a crack line-up including young lead guitarist Aram Bajakian, who grins with delight at getting to play another VU song, “Waiting for My Man”.

There are desultory cheers when Reed announces further Lulu songs, but away from that disastrous folly of an album, they make sense. Strapping on a silver mirror guitar, he becomes a Beat orator bored by everything except suicide on “The View”, still in love with the possibilities of electric guitars and language. “Junior Dad” is a grudging plea for salvation, with a hard poetic core about fathers and sons. His Tai Chi mime during it dares you to laugh, but Reed wouldn’t know why. Humour exists for him as a method of attack.

It’s great to hear “Street Hassle”, 1978’s epic about the disposal of a junkie’s corpse, though the arrangement misses its hardboiled heart. “Walk On the Wild Side” feels flat, while Berlin’s “Sad Song” is grand rock, with verses slashed. 1992’s “Cremation”, its black Atlantic limbo a metaphor for death, is played with quieter feeling. The Velvet Underground’s “White Light, White Heat” beats everything, Bajakian whipping out a fast solo with infectious pleasure, as its careening garage-rock blasts off; a thrilling end to an uncompromising night.

Set List:

Brandenburg Gate

Heroin

Waiting for My Man

Senselessly Cruel

The View

Mistress Dread

Street Hassle

Cremation

Think It Over

Walk On the Wild Side

Sad Song

Junior Dad

Encore:

White Light, White Heat

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