Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A polite round of applause: on The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Low, sickness, fire, expectations, and a year without music

Low performs at Hook & Ladder in Minneapolis
The members of Low perform Velvet Underground songs, October 12, 2019

In October of 2019 I went with my friend Matt to see the members of Low play a one-night-only set of Velvet Underground covers, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Velvets' lone Minneapolis concert. The show was at Hook & Ladder, a former fire station converted into a pleasantly shabby performance venue just off Lake Street in Minneapolis. For that night at least, it carried exactly the right dingy vibe to suit a faux Velvet Underground concert by my favorite active live band.

It was, predictably, a transcendent experience. (I've never seen Alan Sparhawk provide anything but, and I've seen a lot of Alan Sparhawk performances.) I can't think of many bands more capable than Low of recreating the austere yet ragged intensity of the Velvets without veering into parody, or worse yet, handling the material overly reverently. While the four Velvet Underground albums are legitimate holy texts for music lovers, playing them as such would rob the songs of the dangerous energy that makes them vital.

Low got it just right, lurching through the hits and the deep cuts with equal ferocity. They brought out the reliably amazing local violinist Gaelynn Lea to handle the John Cale string arrangements. They did a live rendition of "Lady Godiva's Operation," for pete's sake. Who plays "Lady Godiva's Operation" live? Alan Sparhawk even managed to exude some of the aloof-cool wit of a young Lou Reed, although there's no hiding the fact that Alan is a nicer guy than Lou by magnitudes.

It was, in short, about as perfect a live Velvet Underground experience as a person could have hoped to see in late 2019. There was no way of knowing then that we were just a few months away from live music ceasing to exist for a year and counting. That the Hook & Ladder would narrowly avoid the righteous flames that would swallow the block across the street later that summer. That I'd soon be sitting on my porch watching Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker put on their brave faces as they tried to make the best of streaming live sets in a musical landscape where artist and audience are forever separated by screens.

I've thought a lot this year about what live music truly means to me. Turns out it's a lot! And as much as I've grudgingly come to accept that not going out to see shows won't physically kill me, I also haven't stopped staring wistfully out the window of my home office in the direction of Turf Club. It's a genuine pain, and the closest I've been able to come to empathizing with the folks who've been agitating to go back to their in-person church services. They're still wrong, of course, but I understand the pain of being physically cut off from your houses of worship. The amounts I would pay to see Low play a Velvet Underground cover show right now could be best described as "unreasonable."

I've been listening a lot lately to The Complete Matrix Tapes, a sprawling box set covering two nights' worth of live Velvet Underground performances from 1969. As with any four-disc collection of live music, it has its hits and its misses, but in my book it's much heavier on the former. The undeniable highlight of the collection is a jittery rendition of "Sister Ray." That song is a 17-and-a-half minute masterpiece of churning squalor in its album version, and here it gets to blossom into a 37-minute epic that never comes close to wearing out its welcome. It's just an impeccable piece of work, starting with a slow chug of gentle Moe Tucker beats and meandering guitar and almost-whispered Lou Reed vocals, all steadily building to a frantic-yet-controlled swell that climaxes with Moe pounding out gunshots on her kit as Lou deadpans couplets about Cecil and his new piece and an electric organ gurgles menacingly. It's a thing of glory, a document of a band at the height of its powers pushing the envelope anywhere they can cram it. And, as I mentioned, it goes on for a full 37 minutes.

It's a common music nerd trope to fantasize about what concerts you would choose if you had a chance to go see any band in history. While I love too much music to ever give you a definitive answer, that performance of "Sister Ray" is absolutely near the top of my list. As joyous and visceral as it was to watch a band I cherish recreate the Velvet Underground experience in 2019, being front and center in 1969 watching the genuine article mess with people's heads for 37 minutes sounds like legitimate bliss. Even now, listening on a pair of cheap Panasonic earbuds as I write this, this extended "Sister Ray" is tearing my head apart. I have to imagine witnessing it live would reduce me to tears at the very least.

But here's a curious thing: when "Sister Ray" finally ends after the Velvets have spent one-39th of a day playing it, the crowd doesn't erupt in applause. They don't sit in stunned silence or start shouting angry insults either. They do something much more baffling than any of those options: they clap politely.

Now, I understand that it was 1969 and those were different times, but I've heard more than enough concert recordings of the era to know that uproarious applause was definitely an option. If the San Franciscans watching that show had been sufficiently moved by the previous 37 minutes, they would have screamed and hollered and demanded more. But they weren't. They watched one of history's greatest musical combos destroy the parameters of what a live song could or should be, and their reaction was to give them a nice hand.

Obviously the folks attending that show back in 1969 didn't know they were bearing witness to history, that the band they put down a few bucks to go see would eventually stand alongside the defining artists of their era. They were just out to see that hip New York band who palled around with Andy Warhol. A good portion of that crowd probably went out to the venue that night not knowing quite what to expect and were therefore unprepared to watch 37 minutes of repetitive improvisation. I would guess many of them didn't know quite how to react to what they saw on stage, and a good number of them were likely bored or unimpressed by it. In that light, a tepid round of applause makes a bit more sense.

When I go out to see a buzzed-about newer act, I evaluate their shows in a similar context. I don't go in expecting to be blown away the way I would with, for instance, a Low show, where I have a deep knowledge of the band's musical catalog and years of seeing them slay live on which to base my expectations. That mindset can either elevate or detract from my show-going experience.

For instance, I regard King Tuff at Turf Club as one of the best live shows I've seen in recent years, but I know that's partly because I started dipping into his music only a week or so before seeing him play and came in not knowing quite what to expect. On the other side of the coin, I was mildly disappointed seeing Wolf Alice, largely because I'd spent the weeks leading up to the show watching footage of the band playing electrifying sets at massive outdoor festivals, and that specific energy is hard to translate to a weeknight indoor set at First Avenue.

The crowning example of this phenomenon for me is the sole time I was able to see Lou Reed live. If you're bothering to read this, you likely already know that Lou is my all-time musical guidepost, an artist whose work grabbed me by the soul as a young teenager and has twined through my life at every stage. I would not exist as you know me today without Lou Reed. Obviously, that equates to some unreasonably lofty expectations for a live performance.

I couldn't have been more hyped when I got to see Lou play the Orpheum in Minneapolis on his Ecstasy tour in 2000, even though I had fairly lousy seats in the balcony (I was 21 and working in a sandwich shop at the time, so affording tickets at all was an indulgence). In hindsight, I realize that the evening could only have gone two ways: either Lou would nail me to the wall with a life-changing performance, or I'd come away mildly disappointed but glad to have had the experience. Of course it turned out to be the latter. It was a good show and I remember it clearly, but it didn't transform my soul or open the doors of perception. Lou played the hits and the new album, bantered minimally, and got the job done. I couldn't reasonably have asked for more from him, no matter how much I wanted to. When the show was over, I applauded politely.

(On the other hand, Lou's opener that night was Victoria Williams, another artist I revere but didn't place nearly as high an expectation upon, and she absolutely killed it with a warm and witty and genial show that made me feel like I was just hanging out in her backyard.)

So where am I going with this ramble? I'm not entirely sure. This most uncertain of years has had a way of shifting my focus, making things that once seemed like hard truths more malleable than I would've thought possible. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is how much a year without the succor of live music has made me reflect on exactly what that experience means to me. Seeing how quickly something that means so much to my personal identity and well-being can simply disappear, seeing the institutions I love the most shuttered by sickness, seeing Turf Club looted and flooded, the Hexagon Bar gutted by flames, Hook & Ladder and the Schooner Tavern narrowly avoiding the same fates, watching the artists I love reduced to streaming awkward sets from their living rooms and closets and empty nightclubs…

It all makes the relativism of what is and isn't worthy of vigorous applause melt away, at least temporarily. I know I'm far too much of a crank and a critic to ever say that I'm going to follow Warren Zevon's advice and enjoy every sandwich once the music venues open back up. I'm sure it won't take long for me to fall right back into my usual practice of grousing about set lists and bad crowds and sound mixes. But I can say without reservation that whenever I do get the privilege of setting foot inside Turf Club once again, it won't matter who is on stage or what kind of show they put on. I am going to cheer as loud and long and earnestly as I would after watching the Velvet Underground reel off 37 minutes of "Sister Ray" on a Thursday night in 1969. I'm going to cheer as if my life depended on it, because damn it, a good portion of it does.