Call them the missing link in modern music. Argue for their importance in the development of alternative rock and punk. Cast them as the black-hatted characters in the 60s sonic saga of good and evil. Heck, just dismiss them as a group that went from being ahead of their time to stuck right in the middle of it, but there is no denying the sound and fury delivered by The Velvet Underground. During a relatively short run of almost four years, the group gained notoriety more than airplay, and tried to teach the growing gluttony of the waning Beatlemania how to be subverted and perverted. With lyrics blatantly talking about drugs, sexual deviance, alienation and death, The Velvets were Goth before such a sentiment would be associated with spoiled rich kids in dyed black hair. They were the dangerous part of cool, the frightening aspect of being hip, and they defined the New York scene for decades afterward. Back together for a "believe it when I see it" reunion in 1993, Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII is a 90 minute live concert from France. All celebration aside, this DVD proves that some legends are best left locked in their moment. The present can only taint, not recreate, the past.
Many thought it would never happen, especially with all the bad blood between lead singer/songwriter Lou Reed and multi-faceted instrumentalist John Cale. Their rows were legendary, and led to Cale leaving The Velvets after their second album - White Light/White Heat. Though the group would tramp on until Reed finally decided to call it a day (and then, it hobbled along for another lame album afterward) it was widely considered that the break in The Velvet Underground was a fissure that could never be fixed. But then friend and champion Andy Warhol died in 1987.
His passing seemed to spur something of a desire to reconnect in the minds of the formidable forces inside the once mighty band. Reed and Cale actually collaborated on a song cycle for their dead friend, with 1990's Songs for Drella being a major achievement for the pair. Soon, the rumors of a reunion were swirling - and then realized. In 1993, the original Velvet Underground - Lou Reed (guitar, vocals), John Cale (viola, keyboards, bass), Sterling Morrison (guitar, bass) and Maureen "Moe" Tucker (drums) - took the stage for a brief European tour, with a quick journey through the US to follow.
Unfortunately, they never made it back to their native soil. During the later dates of the tour, Reed and Cale reverted back to their old animosity, and by the time the final show happened in Italy (as the opening act for U2) the plans for the United States were off. Luckily, the band recorded their three night stint in Paris for a CD/film release. The 2 disc set of the songs was made available over 12 years ago. Now, the old VHS video presentation is finally hitting DVD shelves. Taken from a combination of all three shows, this rather minor set of Velvet classics (with a couple of exceptions) shows the band in fine form. The following tunes are available here:
"Venus in Furs" - from the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico
"White Light/White Heat" - from the 1967 album White Light/White Heat
"Beginning to See the Light" - from the 1969 album The Velvet Underground
"Some Kinda Love" - from the 1969 album The Velvet Underground
"Femme Fatale" - from the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico
"Hey Mr. Rain" - from the 1986 Verve Compilation Another View
"I'm Sticking with You" - from the 1985 Verve Compilation VU
"I Heard Her Call My Name" - from the 1967 album White Light/White Heat
"I'll Be Your Mirror" - from the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico
"Rock 'N' Roll" - - from the 1970 album Loaded
"Sweet Jane" - from the 1970 album Loaded
"I'm Waiting for the Man" - from the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico
"Heroin" - from the 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico
"Pale Blue Eyes" - from the 1969 album The Velvet Underground
"Coyote" - previously unreleased
When viewed without the freakishly fawning and sometimes nauseating glare of critical acclaim, when seen as the musical innovators that they truly are, The Velvet Underground commands immediate attention. No other band in the history of the recording industry defied as many odds and deconstructed as many idioms as Andy Warhol's heralded house band. True, the group was around long before Mr. Factory affixed them to his regular "happening" known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and lasted a lot longer in the minds of most musicians than light shows and psychedelia, but their impact wasn't all that seismic at the time. They were viewed as violators of the decade's pure peace and love vibe and never vindicated for pulling rock and roll out of the British musical hall where it could have languished for another few years. By merging each player's individual fascinations - Reed with 50s pop songwriting, Cale with avant-garde noise, Morrison's meaty, muscled riffing and Tucker's primitive pounding - the group forged an identity that was instantly listenable and disquietingly odd.
The downside here is that, as a straight-ahead concert, there is none of the context that makes The Velvet Underground so endlessly fascinating. It will be more than enough for even the most casual fan to gain a glimpse of this seminal act in a regroup redux. But this is a nostalgic level at best, offering a chance to see a mythical act back in the groove once more. Granted, Nico was not involved here, as she was long dead and never really considered essential to the band dynamic. Still, it's strange to hear songs so closely associated with her shattered chanteuse vocal styling ("Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror") sung by Cale or Reed. Then, of course, there is the lack of any new material. "Coyote" is offered up as an unknown track, but it doesn't have the spirit of something newly formed by the band in its current conceptualization. It feels more like a random outtake, tweaked for this concert presentation. Perhaps the final failing of this show is the fact that Lou Reed, never a committed singer to begin with, basically overdoes the "trademark" song-speak here. It's not as bad as some of his recent recordings (he's like rap without the rhythm most of the time) but you still won't hear "Sweet Jane" done the way it is best remembered.
Even worse, this is a terribly truncated version of the three night stint, a series of shows that saw the Velvets digging deep into their catalog of classic songs. Missing here, for example, are takes on "All Tomorrow's Parties", "Black Angel's Death Song", and "The Gift". Anyone who owns the CD set of the shows can testify to the fascinating sonic interplay between bandmate and music during these numbers, something that is evidenced during the juicy jam of "Hey, Mr. Rain". It's these unusual moments, when Reed is no longer the frontman but a part of a greater whole where Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII really excels. For the rest of the set, you'd swear it was a sweet Lou solo show "with special guests". The way the concert is captured on film, the direction never defines Sterling Morrison's real role. We see him strumming and fretting, but never stay on him long enough to realize what a fine guitarist he was. The same goes for Moe Tucker. Her bongo backbeat set up, slamming the skins with tympani sticks in robotic rhythms is quite mesmerizing. But she is left to the lesser shots, single instances where a kind of crescendo is being built. Even her solo singing effort "I'm Sticking with You" sees the lens looking for Reed and Cale almost immediately after it starts.
This is why The Velvets 2.0 would never make it to the US. As influential in band form as they were back then, Cale and Reed continue to be legitimate legends within their own individual careers. While Reed has had more commercial success, Cale can claim a huge artistic and aesthetic institution. All throughout this otherwise entertaining concert, you can sense a kind of tension, an attention tug of war between the cool, suave Welshman and the temperamental American. Cale often gives off the aura of being ignored, cast off to the side while Reed serenades (or sort of serenades) the audience. This is not to suggest that as the lead singer and primary songwriter that Reed should shun the spotlight. He just doesn't share very well. Besides, no matter what this review reveals, there will be two general responses to this DVD. One will be from the devoted hopeful who now realize that, like the Beatles, the Velvets will never get back together. Time has taken Morrison, and issues left unresolved only fester and grow with age. So Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII will be the acceptable swansong for a band that many thought were never going to give it another try. For others, this will be the definitive concert experience for the legendary act - for better, and for worse.
Rhino really dropped the ball on this release. For individuals that own the original VHS version of this title, it may be just as well for you to hold onto that old medium. The image here is horrible - a muddled, messy nearly monochrome offering (granted, the band are mostly decked out in blues, grays and silvers) that is foggy and fuzzy a lot of the time. The transfer is non-anamorphic, the 1.85:1 picture only passable most of the time. There is significant ghosting during the show, with movements tracking across the screen in spectral unacceptability. One guesses that this is a French TV pal recording simply stuck onto a Region 1 NSTC disc. It is a very poor presentation.
Even more depressing than the image is the sound. This presentation is PCM Stereo (though this critic has read ALL OVER the 'Net that it's supposed to be Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround) and is flat, lifeless and far too trebly. The subwoofer barely barks as the songs swing into gear, and Cale's contributions are buried in the almost AM-like ready mix. Compare this DVD to the CD release of the concert and the differences are crystal clear. This aural offering is an audiophile's worst nightmare.
To add a final nail in the coffin of consumer confidence, Rhino delivers NO bonus features. No discography. No interviews. No contextual material of any kind. As stated before, the Velvets deserve at least some mention of their magnitude, but a measly insert with a couple of paragraphs penned by Howie Klein (longtime fan and FOTB - friend of the band) won't do it. The group deserves something more. Sadly, what they get is nothing very much at all.
So here's the hang-up. If you love the Velvets and believe that any chance to see them live is worth the price of digital admission, then by all means, rush right out and pick up a copy of this otherwise uneventful DVD presentation. You won't be disappointed and your collection will be complete. If, on the other hand, you are a stickler for great visuals and equally vibrant sound from anything you jab into your home theater system, then pass by this paltry excuse for a technical trauma. If, however, you are like this critic, and prefer to remember The Velvet Underground from their entire oeuvre, not just a single substandard concert, then you will 'skip' this package all together. With all these caveats and concerns in place, the highest rating deserved by Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII is a Rent It. It will give you a chance to see the group, judge the sound and vision, and determine whether a trip to the brick and mortar is indeed necessary. It's sad to think that the Velvets last recording as a band would be this abridged attempt at mythbusting. They deserve a lot better. And while it's easy to blame ego, era is also important. What they did in the '60s was sonic reinvention. By '93, it was reduced to an opening act for a bunch of Irish wankers. What a world.
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