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Published: 2004/07/02
by Mike Greenhaus

Lou Reed, Carnegie Hall, NYC- 6/23

Lou Reed titled his most enduring anthem "Rock and Roll." But these days the iconic Velvet Underground singer seems more comfortable performing in the elegant confines of Carnegie Hall than in New York's gritty rock joints.

One of the many unique performance packages organized for this years' JVC Jazz Fest, Reed's recent Manhattan appearance found the aging rocker playing alongside the Holmes Brothers and Nellie McKay; singers whose age gap spans fifty years. Recalling a youthful Elton John, 19-year old McKay pounded her piano with the drive of a budding Broadway star, singing hymns about fame, fortune, and her lesbian lifestyle. Opening with a soulful tribute to Ray Charles, the Holmes Brothers offered forty-five minutes of pure gospel, overpowering their electric instruments with their equally strong vocal machinery. Fitting snugly between McKay's polished pop and the Holmes Brothers' weathered gospel-blues, Reed used his headlining slot to twist his canon in several directions, curbing each of his cuts before they steered too close to his past.

Despite his celebrity status, Reed has remained somewhat elusive in recent years. Surfacing every so often for a spot at Times Squares' Town Hall, Reed has rejected the public persona of his peers. But, like David Byrne and David Bowie, Reed has also lost his identity in an aura of high-art. While Reed's longstanding relationship with Andy Warhol served as an important ingredient in the Velvet Underground's musical stew, the attitude that colors Reed's current work is neither rebellious nor refreshing. Fortifying himself among world-class musicians, Reed brought the same touring ensemble that supported has supported all of his recent outings to Carnegie Hall. Documented on the new live release Animal Serenade, this classical tingled collective adds new weight to Reed’s words, creating the layered feel of a the mini-orchestra. Backed by his fusion of musicians, Reed created a tranquil, melodic mood, delivering sparse readings of his compositions. Singer Antony helped charm a show closing version of "Perfect Day," while cellist Jane Scarpantoni shined on a sublime "Sunday Morning." A bitter reading of Blue Mask’s "The Day John Kennedy Died" allowed guitarist Mike Rathke able room to roam.

With an audience composed of both weathered Reed fans and younger garage rock enthusiasts, the iconic singer entered Carnegie Hall like tenured professor, ready to school his students through discipline. Staying clear of solos hits like "Wild Side" and Velvet Underground staples such as "Sweet Jane" and "Heroin," Reed stacked his set list with relatively unknown material. Attempting to tame his flamboyant qualities, Reed's youthful strut worked its way into his stance and while his performance style remains casual, Reed's musical vision is serious. Never cracking a smile, Reed's eyes popped like veins, revealing a dark, frazzled persona akin to Carnegie Hall staple Phillip Glass. Well aware of his audience's expectations, Reed sang the line, "I'm not going to play songs you've heard a hundred times," a third-of-the way into his set. Fermenting like beer, Reed's voice has matured from a pre-punk snarl to a truly human vocal instrument.

Of his modern, melodic experiments, Reed shined brightest during his Holmes Brothers-aided gospel jams, which found a sense of humanity within the singer's dense textures. Yet, unfortunately, Reed's recent releases just aren't strong enough to support his attitude. With a reworking of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven fable as his newest collection of original material, Reed focused on a slew of songs which have surfaced since that disc's 2003 release. With all facets of fans in attendance, ranging from suited businessmen to a pair young pre-punks sporting bright red hair, longtime "Lou-heads" remained unaware of how to prove their loyalty. Taking a cue from Reed's apathetic attitude, a few audience members greeted closed each track with a round of gentle golf claps, while one drunkard spent much of Reed's performance screaming for Poe's poem. When Reed did exchange his guitar for Poe's prose, he halted the energy of his set, misplacing a lower-east side poetry slam inside the guise of a pop show.

In fact, Reed's decision to cover The Raven exemplifies the singer's current state of mind. More concerned with tackling lofty goals than perfecting his performance mode, Reed's set crossed from being deep to disappointing. Handing over "Perfect Day's" most touches moments to Antony, Reed didn't fain enthusiasm for entertaining his fans.

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