One can talk about Lou Reed’s life in albums until he or she is blue in the face. But as most of the Long Island native’s fans are mourning his death from this past Sunday after succumbing to complications from a liver transplant are well aware, the true strength of Lou’s rock ‘n’ roll powers lay within his barnstorming live performances. And while the cache of concert albums officially released through both RCA and Sire over the last 40 years do a decent enough job at telling the tale of the Velvet Underground co-founder’s onstage viscera, much like output of The Rolling Stones, they are infinitely outgunned by the raw nature of the myriad of bootlegs generated by Lou’s legions of fans, friends and foes. Here are ten essential RoIOs you need to hunt down now as you continue reflecting and re-listening in memory of this amazing, complex man and his many gifts to this earth. Rest in peace, Lou.
1. Los Angeles The Roxy 1976
“Listening to the first track (simply called Jam) on this CD as a blindfold test would probably stump a lot of people. It’s a kind of jazz rock with a touch of Miles. Not really the kind of music one expects to find at a Lou Reed show.
But then, if Bruce Springsteen had Clarence Clemons to layer in the sax lines, in 1976, Lou Reed had jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, together with saxophonist Marty Fogel, to help his music swing. While not credited on the artwork, Cherry’s presence is integral to the general funky/jazzy vibe apart from getting a prime spot on tracks such as “A Sheltered Life”, “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Kicks” (some fans even consider the version here among the best live versions of the song). Cherry even managed to imbue a quiet storm feel on “Walk On The Wild Side”. [Don Cherry would formally appear on Lou Reed’s 1979 album, The Bells.]
In November 1976, Reed had released his seventh album, Rock And Roll Heart, but for this set, he only performed four new songs from the album – “I Believe In Love”, “A Sheltered Life”, “You Wear It So Well” and “Claim To Fame”. Coming after Berlin and Transformer, fans probably wanted more rocking angst but found Reed with what would be considered an R&B album. The lack of really standout songs didn’t help and fans are divided over “this faux jazzy big band sound” – just listen to the opening of “A Sheltered Life.”
“But nothing seemed to faze Reed at this gig. Compared to the sound on the more sedate New York album in 1989, this concert practically brims with life. This is one very good sounding show, and with Don Cherry on board, becomes especially memorable for those who feel that the godfather of punk should dabble even with R&B if he so wishes.” – Big O Zine, 2008
2. Chicago 1978
This soundboard from Reed’s memorable show at Park West in the Windy City is quite possibly one of the finest blends of punk, rock and soul to ever be caught on tape as Lou and his crew–replete with horn section and backup singers–mixes it up with maximum R&B renditions of old warhorses like “Sweet Jane”, “Rock & Roll” and “Walk On The Wild Side” and material from his late-70s classic Street Hassle like “Gimme Some Good Times” and “I Wanna Be Black”. Where his ’76 show at The Roxy might have seen him go deeper into the jazzier end of the soul spectrum, this Park West show is nothing but brass and ass. Pure magic.
Captured via a Dutch radio broadcast of Lou’s stop at the Koninklijk Theater Carré in Amsterdam during his tour in support of 1992’s Magic and Loss, this boot might only be an incomplete document of this concert. But the pristine quality of the performances that were included, like Magic’s raucous “Gassed and Stoked”, a rugged “Sweet Jane” and a great version of the New York highlight “Strawman”, makes this an essential get for any fan of Reed’s Sire era.
4. Belgium 1984
“I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch,” Lou prophetically admits on “Average Guy” off 1982’s The Blue Mask, a moment that gave this listener a great sense of pause whilst enjoying this A+ soundboard of his appearance at the 1984 Werchter Festival in Belgium, loaded with blistering live renditions of tracks from 1983’s Legendary Hearts and its follow-up New Sensations thanks to the confrontational guitar interplay between Reed and the late, great Voidoids axe master Robert Quine, the singer’s greatest six-string foil.
5. Yasgur’s Farm 1998
Lou Reed might have scoffed at the notion of the Velvet Underground playing Woodstock back in 1969. However, on August 15, 1998, NYC’s most legendary curmudgeon finally arrived at Yasgur’s Farm for the A Day In The Garden festival, a weekend-long concert held at the original Woodstock concert site that also featured the likes of Pete Townshend, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Donovan, Don Henley, Ten Years After, Ziggy Marley and a bunch of crappy mid-to-late 90s alternative rock acts like Third Eye Blind and Dishwalla. Flanked by his classic New York album line-up of guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith, Lou delivered a killer set loaded with some of his great late-period material from such overlooked classics as 1984’s New Sensations and 1996’s phenomenal Set The Twilight Reeling, his latest album at the time. It certainly was a little odd seeing such a dark soul like Lou Reed at 1 PM, but nevertheless it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
6. NYC 1977/1983
The Bottom Line is just one of the legendary venues forced out of existence by the Guliani/Bloomberg axis of evil that levied its grasp around the throat of culture and the arts in New York these last 15 years. But the warmth and the incredible sound of the venue are perhaps best captured in the form of a pair of excellent Lou boots from the club at two distinct periods of his career. The first, from 1977, is almost like the more earnest antithesis to the jokey and sarcastic performance culled from a show at Max’s Kansas City that year which would comprise 1978’s controversial “comedy” album Live: Take No Prisoners. The other, a pro-shot concert film/documentary of sorts, stems from a 1983 show in support of Lou’s magnificent Blue Mask LP and features some stellar guitar playing from Robert Quine.
7. Out of the Underground
Recorded at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on January 27, 1973, this excellent soundboard features a rare performance of “Wagon Wheel” and a nine-minute rendition of the White Light/White Heat drone anthem “Sister Ray” that grooves out the Velvet Underground original until it sounded like blaxploitation on smack.
8. Philadelphia Special 1986
Mistrial is one of Lou’s most maligned albums. But it is also one of the most misunderstood as well, as the singer’s deep delve into the sleazy gloss of the 80s hard rock movement is not as bad of a record as all these critics make it out to be. And live, key LP cuts like “No Money Down” and “The Original Wrapper” take on a much rawer, funkier form than their studio counterparts, as exhibited on this liberated FM broadcast of an old episode of the King Biscuit Flower Hour, who recorded Reed and his band at the Mann Music Centre in Philly. This famous boot was also released on vinyl under the title On Trial…As Recorded by His Lawyer.
9. New York Stories 1989
This excellent, professionally shot and recorded show from Montreal in August of 1989 finds Lou and a group consisting of longtime pal Mike Rathke on guitar, the great Rob Wasserman on bass and drummer Richard Medici ripping through the entirety of Reed’s 1989 masterpiece New York. Google “Lou Reed, New York Stories” for the best success in your hunt for this must-own set.
10. Paris 1974
“Hey shut up!” Lou yells in mid-song during “Ride Sally Ride” to a rude Frenchman, just one of the highlights of this soundboard capture of an incredible and assured performance on the Paris stop of his tour supporting his highest charting album Sally Can’t Dance. Bolstered by a knockout live ensemble featuring Danny Weiss on guitar, Michael Fonfara, keyboards, Prakash John on bass and drummer Pentti “Whitey” Glan, Reed mixes it up between his still young solo output and VU chestnuts with a power comparable to his Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal outfit.
Bonus: Lou Reed, John Zorn, Bill Laswell and Milford Graves, perhaps the greatest super group of downtown NYC players ever assembled, came together for one night of improvised madness as part of the Joshua Light Show revival at New York University’s Skirball Center on September 12, 2012. Little did we know that this would be one of Lou’s final performances in the city he’s called home for so many years. But what a way to go out!