Review: POP: Lou Reed Meltdown Festival, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
It was shortly after one of his greatest triumphs that Lou Read began to slip. New York, recorded in 1989, was his critical and commercial vindication. It convinced Reed that he was rock's premiere poet, a respectable artist. The results on record have been mixed but live they've been the death of him. The unpredictability of his old, wired days has been replaced by shows typified by a 1989 tour, which is still remembered with a shiver, when he played his current album with note-perfect reverence, made identical "asides" to the audience each night and played an encore of old songs with utter contempt.

Reed's performance on Thursday night looked even less promising. Part of Laurie Anderson's Meltdown Festival, it promised excerpts from Time- Rocker, a song-cycle written for the New York stage. The audience settled into their comfortable seats and stayed there. Lou and the band came on and did the same. It was as if rock 'n' roll had been cut off at the knees. He opened with some of his most famous songs, including "Perfect Day" and "Vicious", and for once gave their playing some thought, changing rhythms and lyrics. The problem was that the only reason for the changes seemed to be to make the songs unfamiliar enough to Reed for him to stand them. Half an hour in, there wasn't any passion in the place and an ageing audience seemed content.

Then Reed played six songs from Time-Rocker, songs no one present had ever heard, and the night began to change. The songs weren't especially good. But Reed was at least attempting something new, however flawed, and it forced him into focus. His voice strained, was pushed to breaking and in a song about emotional denial, "I Don't Need This", approached the desperate, doomed urgency of his Seventies work.

Then the old songs began again, with "Coney Island Baby", but their playing wasn't perfunctory any longer. The song is about memory, and, returned to after such a prolonged burst of Reed's present, it became a return for the audience to a musical past made richer, part of something ongoing. The roar at its end shocked everyone. Reed gave a laughing splutter and what had been deathly was transformed in an instant into what must have been his best concert in years. He sang fragments of Elvis in last year's "Sex With Your Parents (Part 2)", becoming his own jukebox, his own past. As members of the crowd stood and walked to the front he began New York's "Dirty Boulevard" his most crushing rock 'n' roll moment. "Have you ever felt rage in your heart?" he extemporised, punching the beat on his folded legs, like a crippled man brought back to life by his own songs.

He walked off and the lights went on, the infallible sign that the show was over. But the crowd were on their feet now, their emotion out of any proportion to the music, like a sports crowd elated by victory, pushing for more. The lights went back off, Reed came back on and sang the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane". It was a song that must have died for him long ago. But in the emotion of the moment, it wasn't about his words. It was about him singing it because the audience had willed him to. He could have played all night and he probably should have. At the end, he was sporting a big, sloppy grin. He wasn't alone.

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