SXSW 2014: Lou Reed tribute mostly rises to the challenge
AUSTIN, Texas — On Friday night while the youth were out chasing the next revolution and the lemmings were packing the Hype Hotel at South by Southwest, the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin hosted a crowd comfortably removed from the chaos who were meditating in ragtag fashion on the godfather of some of this nonsense, Lou Reed.
Produced and hosted by Texas native Alejandro Escovedo, formerly of Rank & File and the Nuns, and New York singer and Bongos founder Richard Barone, the tribute featured more than two dozen veterans and inheritors digging into Reed’s oft-brilliant work. But that didn’t plug the flow of data temptations arriving by the minute.
Settling in to the Paramount for four hours of Reed’s music (both solo and with the Velvet Underground) was in some respects an exercise in restraint. Even five years ago the majority of SXSW attendees focused on their printed schedules to determine their experience. On Friday night, the relentless stream of Twitter raves and rumors, Instagram snaps and random details about events elsewhere in town arrived so quickly I felt skittish whenever I unlocked my phone to take notes. Living in the moment became a task.
Was Jay-Z really going to do a pop-up show on 7th St. in a half hour? How to weigh that against the potential thrills of the Black Lips doing “Run, Run, Run,” or Lucinda Williams covering “Pale Blue Eyes” here? Plus, a new Velvet Underground or a young Sean Carter might be out there somewhere, mesmerizing on 6th Street to a few dozen lucky souls who will brag of that gig a few decades from now. What’s the point of reminiscing when the future’s raging all around you?
Well, “Sister Ray,” for one, as massacred in grand fashion by the Baseball Project, a loose consortium of musician friends who normally make songs centered around baseball themes. The band featured R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and their longtime touring guitarist (and former Young Fresh Fellow) Scott McCaughey, singer-guitarist and Dream Syndicate founder Steve Wynn and Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor.
They were teamed with a house band starring two members of the Patti Smith Group (Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan), the former guitarist for Richard Hell and the Voidoids (Ivan Julian) and Blondie drummer Clem Burke -- artists who long ago internalized Reed’s music. Four guitarists using four different kinds of distortion repeated the “Sister Ray” riff while Kantor went crazy on the song’s fuzzy organ mantra. Baseball Project drummer Linda Pitmon pounded like Mo Tucker. It was an amazing version of the song, and as close as I’ll ever come to experiencing the thrill of hearing the Velvet Underground perform it live.
Another reason to dip into the past: Sharon Needles, performer and Season 4 winner of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” interpreted “Candy Says,” Reed’s ode to the transvestite Candy Darling. Or how about Joe Dallesandro, star of infuential films by Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, reading Reed’s poetry? Or the perpetually underappreciated rocker Bobby Bare, Jr. offering a searing version of “Sweet Nothing,” the last song on the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” album?
Like Reed’s lesser records, even the evening’s so-called “failures” ended up succeeding, almost despite themselves. The best/worst of them was by the Fauntleroys, who offered a very loose, under-rehearsed version of “Waves of Fear,” from Reed’s great album “The Blue Mask.” They had to start over twice, and the song was a mess. But, then, gradually and with great focus they managed to lock in, at least for most of the song. That recklessness was something Reed would have appreciated.
The most curiously effective take was by Spandau Ballet, the British chart-toppers best known for the much-sampled mid-'80s ballad “True.” The group recently re-formed, and delivered a typically Brit-croony version of “Satellite of Love,” complete with awesome tenor sax solo. The band pulled it off in grand fashion, suggesting that their return might yield substance alongside the nostalgia for all things 1980s.
My favorite cover, though, came early, and it featured the Irish DJ, singer and photographer BP Fallon backed by young Irish rockers the Strypes. Performing Reed’s mean-streets rocker “Vicious,” the singer couldn’t hit many of the notes, but neither could Reed, which made it a plus.
Coupled with the the Strypes, who traffic in solid, no frills hard rock, Fallon and band’s version had a super-potent rawness -- landing in a zone that Reed helped define.
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