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Lou Reed - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 1/7/2007

  by John Clarkson

published: 16 / 6 / 2007

Lou Reed - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 1/7/2007


Lou Reed has recently been touring Europe with his bleak early 1970's masterpiece, 'Berlin', and both a choir and brass and strings section. John Clarkson finds that it has lost none of and impact almost 35 years on from its original release and the New York rocker on fantastic form

About two thirds of the way through Lou Reed’s performance of ‘Berlin’ on the second of his two night residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, and just as he is concluding ‘The Kids’ with its bleak chorus of “They’re taking her children away”, a couple in their late 30’s scuttle out of the Grand Circle and down the stairs, their seven or eight year old boy in tow. The child doesn’t look unduly perturbed, sleepy as much as anything else. Maybe the parents have simply had problems getting a babysitter, but one has to wonder what he and they are doing there. Almost 35 years after its original release, ‘Berlin’ still carries the power to shock and remains strictly adult in its subject matter. Set in the then still divided German capital, a city which Reed had not been to at the time of its release in 1973, ‘Berlin’ tells of the doomed love affair between ex-American pat Jim and the bisexual Caroline ; Jim’s physical violence towards Caroline as she takes on both other male and female lovers and becomes hooked on drugs, and her subsequent suicide after the authorities take her children into care. ‘Berlin’ followed on from the whimsical yet popular ‘Transformer’, which found Reed wearing the make Glam make-up and lipstick of the era and gave him his one and only solo hit with ‘Walk on the Walk Side’. Much derided upon its release as a result and because of its relentlessly harrowing lyrics, it was infamously slated by one critic at the time as the “worst album by a major artist in 1973”, while even Lester Bangs, who adored Reed, described it as “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancour that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” The vitriol directed towards ‘Berlin’ has waned in the four decades since then, and it has been the subject of major re-evaluation, many fans and critics seeing it now, with it sweeping orchestral arrangements, taut lyrics and poignancy, as one of the highlights of the former Velvet Underground star’s long and erratic solo career. Reed hasn’t released a fully satisfying album since his final masterpiece, 1992’s ‘Magic and Loss’. It was perhaps inevitable, with his lyrical powers fading, and the finer moments on each new album becoming fewer and further between, that the now 65 year old Reed should choose to look back through his song book to the most misunderstood of all his records, and the only album in his 30 album career that he hasn’t toured with. He has done so with great style. The set for ‘Berlin’, designed by Reed’s fellow New Yorker, artist and film maker Julian Schnabel, is breathtaking. As the lights drop and go up on the stage, a large backdrop of a Chinese wall hanging which runs along the entire back of set is revealed. In front of this in the centre Reed’s drummer, Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith, is perched on his drum stool, with visors each side of his extensive drum kit. On Smith’s left there is a 10 piece children’s choir clad in flowing gospel robes, while on his right there is a 7 member brass and strings section. Reed and the remainder of his musicians-his long term cohort and bassist since the early 80’s Fernando Saunders ; singer Katie Krykant ; stand up-bass player Rob Wasserman ; keyboardist Rupert Christie and guitarist Steve Hunter, who played on the original ‘Berlin’ sessions-are dotted across the front of the stage. From the outset, it is clear that Reed and his crew have come not simply to bang out a straight-up rendition of ‘Berlin’ exactly as it was recorded, but instead to challenge and to stretch their audience by redefining and building upon it. The choral ‘Sad Song’, which closes the album, provides a brief, magnificent new introduction at the beginning of the set. Christie’s keyboard work is starker and crisper in sound on the elegant title track than producer Bob Ezrin’s piano playing on the original. ‘Oh Jim’, in which Jim first turns to wife beating, is developed into a fiery, prolonged free form jazz work out between Hunter and Saunders. ‘Caroline Says II’ and ‘The Kids’, each of which use the choir more prolifically, are both too given an extended treatment. A video film directed by Schnabel’s daughter Lola and starring the French actress and wife of the film director Roman Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner, as “Caroline”, is projected onto the back wall. It shows her dancing drunk and stoned, hugging her children and then crying alone in the bed in which she will eventually kill herself. The video is initially hard to see amidst the dragons and flowers of the Chinese screen, but Lola’s choppy hand held camera movements and Seigner’s vulnerable performance both have an understated power and add further depth to the gritty piquancy and lowlife realism of Reed’s masterwork and tonight’s evocation of it. The surging ‘Sad Song’ concludes with both the choir and strings and horn section volleying off each other. Reed’s musicians put down their instruments and stand their arms wrapped around each other as the crowd, completely silenced by what has been happening on stage, erupts into massive applause. Reed introduces the choir, the horns and strings players impressively all by name, and then the members of the group. It is perhaps all a little too self-congratulatory, but for once deserved. It has been splendid, a stunning, unique experience and an evening for long-term converts to ‘Berlin’ of some surprises. Everyone troops off stage to return ten minutes later for a three song encore. A raunchy, comical ‘Sweet Jane’ finds Reed duetting with Krykant, with the acrobat-voiced Krykant playing the role of a belligerent Jane and Reed her hapless, much put-upon boyfriend. On ‘Satellite of Love’, Reed, his cracked voice never the most successful of instruments and now eroded into a monotone gruffness with age, mistakenly tries to sing falsetto, but is saved by the lilting, liberating harmonics of the choir. The set is closed almost inevitably with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, with its chorus line of “All the coloured girls go doo, doo, doo, doo” changed to the almost equally politically incorrect “All the little girls…” All three encores are all solid enough, counteracting the melancholy of the main set with some fun and humour, yet it is ‘Berlin’in its tragedy and its humanity which haunts and sticks. Reed has boasted to audiences that “You can tell your kids that you saw Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin.”. He says that after this tour he will never perform it again. A spectacle of great drama, it is something to tell people in years to come that you have seen. ‘Berlin’ is rock theatre in its highest form.

Picture Gallery:-
Lou Reed - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 1/7/2007

Lou Reed - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 1/7/2007

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