Velvet Underground: Velvet Redux - Live MCMXCIII
As a life long music lover I was extremely fortunate to grow up in New York City, reaching my teen years in the late sixties to early seventies. At this time the city was the central site for new and innovative music. Each weekend, and more weeknights than my parents where aware of, I would take the subway to listen to new groups in the Filmore East and many of the numerous clubs in Greenwich Village. It was during those sojourns that I first heard one of the most ground breaking groups of that time, The Velvet Underground. This was a time when no one sound would dominate the musical scene. There was room enough for more unusual forms of expression and the Velvet Underground certain had the edge when it came to being unusual. While some would say that their songs droned on true fans recognized that they connected with the melancholy the audience felt about a world involved with war and social repression. They touched something in those of us listening, a chord that resonated with our inner most feelings.
Although the group formerly parted ways in 1973 they remained a cult classic for decades. In 1993 original group members reunited for a tour of Europe opening in select cities for the powerhouse U2. Although they didn’t hold together long enough to make dates set in the United States they did producer enough concert footage to come up with an incredible DVD, Velvet Underground: Velvet Redux - Live MCMXCIII. As with many groups the line up changed but the core group is represented here. Lou Reed supplies the lead vocals and guitar, John Cale working viola, guitar, bass and keyboard, Sterling Morrison on guitar and bass and Maureen Tucker on percussion. Shortly after the last breakup of the group Morrison died of cancer leaving this DVD as his legacy for fans everywhere.
The DVD is a retrospective of their career including some of the best work. The disc begins with one of their earliest songs, ‘Venus in Furs’. Its sadomasochism themes would turn off a main stream audience but for those that were willing to listen the lyrics invoked a darkness that connected emotionally to so many at that time. The group shared the vocals more than many groups of the time. John Cale took center stage for the quietly haunting rendition of ‘Femme Fatale’ with Reed offering the backup vocals. During ‘I’m Sticking with You’ percussionist Maureen Tucker comes out from behind her drums to give a gentle vocal. There is almost a childlike quality not only to the lyrics but the presentation. Not all the selections here are slow paced. ‘Sweet Jane’ brings the audience alive as Reed and the other Velvets pick up the pace and so just where they influenced rock.
As mentioned previously their songs did not cover subjects that were conducive to top forty radio stations. One such song, obvious even from the title is ‘Heroine’. As with much of the works of the Velvets this song looks honestly at a part of life that is out there but most people would like to ignore. With lyrics like ‘I put a spike into my vein and things aren’t quite the same’, their songs were too much to every make this talented group of people acceptable to the mainstream. While they would never achieve the financial success of even the prefabricated boy bands they created a visceral music that would inspire more groups than it is possible to list. Even an instrumental number like ‘Hey Mister Rain’ reflected the growing angst, pain and uncertainly of a generation. Even if you were never personally into the subjects covered by their song list you could identify with the all important underlying feeling the songs conveyed.
The group would not make it today against the assembly line singers and musicians that dominate the scene. Even as a fan of their work I have to admit that none of the band was particularly strong in the vocal department. There are no five octave ranges here, just an outpouring of emotion. Each number is assembled with care and precision. Unlike most groups, even today, there is a viola track that forms the basis for the number. Layered on top of this was the unique percussion, bass and doleful picking of the guitar. This was musical synergy at its best; the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts.
Reed with his tight black tee shirt commands the stage. Guitar in hand he sings from the inner most depths of his being. Tucker was one of the first female drummers. Instead of sitting behind her drum set she stands, pounding out the beat with mallets against her overturned bass drum. One time when her drums where stolen just before a performance she used garbage cans. Now here is a person that lives for her music. Cale with his viola tucked under his chin is rock solid, always driving the sound forward.
There is no doubt that this is the definitive collection of the Velvet Underground. The concert footage here may be grainy, often lit with a pale blue light but in this case it is perfect. For a group like this you wouldn’t want an ultra sharp picture. The full screen video reminded me of those smoky little dives in the Village where they first performed. The audio is presented in PCM stereo. The channel separation is adequate but mostly centered. The band thrives on stage, taking the enthusiasm of the audience and returning great performances. Most of the numbers are extended often with longer instrumental introductions before the vocals come in. Many numbers have extended musical breaks between verses where the band weaves around and through each other.
This may not be the music you are used to. There is no slick presentations, no back up dancers, no light shows. What you will get is the legacy of one of the most influential sounds in music. For the music historians out there this is a must have DVD. For those willing to stretch musically you can not do better. Sure it is dark, hardly the choice for a party, but it is innovative and an important part of our legacy.