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Lou Reed - Berlin : Live at St Ann's Warehouse

  by John Clarkson

published: 26 / 10 / 2008

Lou Reed - Berlin : Live at St Ann's Warehouse
Label: Matador Records
Format: CD


Live reworking of Lou Reed's infamously controversial 'Berlin' album, which shows that Reed still has the power to enthral and shock

When Lou Reed took his rock opera ‘Berlin’ out on the road for the first time in late 2006, 33 years after its original release in 1973, it was the final step in the restoration of a much maligned masterpiece. The controversial successor to the popular but somewhat ephemeral ‘Transformer’, ‘Berlin’ sat uneasily with an early 70’s audience more used to glam rock frivolity and pretentious, fantastical concept albums from its pop stars. Its tale of the sado-masochistic relationship between the hedonistic Caroline and her violent lover Jim ; her downfall through drugs and subsequent suicide after her children are taken away from her by the authorities won Reed few new fans, and it was critically panned. Rolling Stone called it “patently offensive”, and even Lester Bangs, who worshipped Reed, described it as “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancour that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” In these more enlightened, but darker times, in which it seems that just about everyone knows a drug addict, and social work departments are collapsing under work overload, ‘Berlin’, however, has gained in appeal. The ‘Berlin’ shows were triumphant, lavish affairs, and the four nights in December 2006 which opened the tour at St Ann’s Warehouse in Reed’s native New York featured a seven piece orchestra, a children’s choir and a guest appearance on backing vocals from Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons. One might accuse Reed, who after a final spate of creativity in the late 80’s and early 90’s hasn’t released a really decent album in fifteen years, of milking things a little with the revival of ‘Berlin’. The ‘Berlin’ tour lasted eighteen months, taking in cities like London twice. Since then there has been a ‘Berlin’ rock documentary of the St Ann’s shows, directed by Reed’s friend Julian Schnabel, who also designed the stage set for the tour, and a hasty DVD release with inevitable extras of the film. Now we have this film soundtrack. For those who saw the tour or the film, both Schnabel’s imposing stage set, which created the backdrop of a seedy Berlin hotel, and a silent film directed by his daughter Lola Schnabel which starred Emmanuelle Seigner as “Caroline” and was shown as the group played , occasionally dwarfed what was happening on stage. This audio representation serves as a timely reminder of how fine Reed and his band, which included bassist Fernando Saunders, pianist Rupert Christie and backing vocalist Sharon Jones, were, not just at St Ann’s, but throughout the ‘Berlin’ tour. Guitarist Steve Hunter, who appeared on the original album, with his mammoth guitar riffs and the appropriately-nicknamed Tony “Thunder” Smith on drums both put in particularly strong performances. The choir and orchestra meanwhile bring both a gravitas and an occasional flamboyance to proceedings. The live rendition of ‘Berlin’ remains true to its source, but at the same time Reed has partially revised ‘Berlin’ and he and his band keep things just different enough to hold the attention of those who already know the original well. ‘Sad Song’, the choral final track, is now used to bookend the piece, appearing in a brief intro at its beginning as well. ‘How Do You Think It Feels ?’ is turned into a lengthy, but thrilling guitar duel between Reed and the dynamic Hunter, while ‘Oh, Jim’, which follows it, becomes an equally epic avant garde jazz piece. Reed, who is now aged 66 and who continues to release new albums of material at ever widening intervals and with increasingly diminished returns, will probably never release another really great album again now. Whether he does or he does not, this revival of ‘Berlin’, half a lifetime after he originally recorded it, and its subsequent live recording, however, show that even in this late stage in his career he still has the power to enthral and shock.

Track Listing:-
1 Intro
2 Berlin
3 Lady Day
4 Men Of Good Fortune
5 Caroline Says, Pt. I
6 How Do You Think It Feels
7 Oh, Jim
8 Caroline Says, Pt. II
9 The Kids
10 The Bed
11 Sad Song
12 Candy Says
13 Rock Minuet
14 Sweet Jane

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