Expectation and spontaneity
For the performing musician, especially a songwriter such as Lou Reed, who thrives on exploring varying sonic aspects of his work at each performance, spontaneity is a quicksilver energy that surges through the original conception and composition of the song and manifests itself in a fresh chordal phrasing, a revised sense of tempo or an inspiring happenstance of guitar tone.
At his Chico Performances gig at Laxson on Nov. 5, I anticipated seeing the Reed of his publicity photos: stern-visaged behind opaque black shades, clad in black and exuding a dour aura of rebellious romanticism. But I also anticipated that Reed is the type of artist who prefers not to do what’s expected of him, and was pleasantly surprised when he sauntered onto center stage wearing the same basic outfit I wear to work every day: jeans, a T-shirt with something silk-screened on the front, sensible shoes and no sunglasses. He’s a slender, fit-looking man who few would guess is 65 years old if they didn’t know who he was already.
Flanked by two of the best bassists in the world, Rob Wasserman and Fernando Saunders, Reed checked his guitar tone with a few exploratory strums and began the chiming prelude to “What’s Good” from Magic and Loss, which ends with the refrain line “What’s good? (Life’s good) but not fair at all.”
Even those who went to the show hoping or expecting Reed to perform a set of his “hits” from the Velvet Undergound days leavened with later pop masterpieces such as “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” seemed pleased with Reed’s choice to perform songs from his less well-known body of work.
As Reed explained during one of his brief between-song commentaries, he’d chosen the drummerless, two-bass format of the current lineup to “emphasize aspects of the songs that you might not normally hear in a concert. Like the lyrics.” And, despite a tendency of the PA system to break up and distort a bit when the volume and tonalities intersected in the midrange, his lyrics came across loud and (pretty) clear, carried by the power of Reed’s deep voice and unique style of simultaneously singing and speaking his words.
As a fan of electronic music it was great to hear the squiggles, whooshes and bleeps that swirled around the auditorium from the Moog synthesizer that Reed employed to create the sonic atmosphere that accompanied his excerpt from Songs for Drella, an imagined entry from Andy Warhol’s diary.
And the final encore number, a new “one you’ve never heard before,” composed on the road and titled “Gravity,” was a brilliant fusion of the musical powers of all three musicians supporting Reed’s lyrical delineation of all the ways the physical world contains and limits us while simultaneously allowing us to experience the inexplicably blended duality of chaos and order that allows us to make personal choices in the face of inevitability.
It was, in other words, a profoundly rocking and poetic and, by my definition, spiritual concert, one that more than fulfilled my nebulous expectations and left me with an even greater respect for Reed as an artist.