In the program notes to his scruffy, roaring Velvet Underground tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, John Cale, 75, noted he’s “reluctant to spend too much time on things past.” Fair enough. But as foundational member and key sonic architect of a band that ranks with rock’s greatest, he’s earned a victory lap. And 50 years – the time passed since the game-changing 1967 LP The Velvet Underground & Nico – is a long time.
That said, the concert – which was similar to one staged last spring as part of a major Velvet Underground exhibit at the Philharmonie de Paris – was no museum display, but a living thing, writhing and howling. And its best moments found a balance between replication and reinvention.
Even the stage set was an impressionistic take on the Velvets’ legacy, hung with circular projection screens that echoed the polka-dot slide projections concocted by Andy Warhol and his Factory team for the band’s mid-Sixties shows as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Cale, resembling a late-game Samuel Beckett with white hair exploding in all directions, took the stage in a black suit jacket over a sort of black tunic. He began by noting the original Velvets who weren’t on stage: Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Nico (all dead) and drum radical Mo Tucker (missing in action down south). In their place, Cale enlisted a younger generation of artists, none of whom might make a short list of obvious VU devotees, tellingly, but all of whom illuminated aspects of what made that band great.
In a similar spirit, the set list wasn’t a song-for-song remake of the first LP. Backed by his own impressive band, Cale opened with a pounding, hollering “Waiting for My Man.” The four-piece group became seven for “White Light/White Heat,” as laid-back guitar master Kurt Vile ripped nasty, agitated low-end surf licks from his guitar and Brigid Dawson of the Oh Sees sang cheerily about speed freaks. When MGMT launched into a beautifully harmonized, surprisingly faithful rendition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the song’s signature drones were thickened by a sousaphone player. When Cale sang “Venus in Furs” (as he did with the Velvets when Reed was indisposed) alongside a string ensemble, he did it with impressive relish, his Welsh accent giving lines like “taste the whip, now bleeeed for me” a potent spin – dude might’ve had a successful second career as a dom.
Not everything worked as well: Sky Ferreira reading of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” felt perfunctory, and Animal Collective’s reshaping of “There She Goes Again” into a warped techno-reggae jam, which might have amplified the song’s looming violence, seemed instead to trivialize it. Generally, things were most thrilling when they were loudest, a reminder that the Velvet Underground v1.0, in addition to singing about things no one else dared, were maybe the most aggressively noisy band of their day. Kurt Vile blasted magnificently through “Run Run Run.” MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden incanted the verses of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” hypnotically over a dizzying swarm of brass and sputtering electronics. Illuminated by blood-red projections, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe alternately crooned and yelled through “Heroin,” making the best of what seemed like a malfunctioning microphone, as the din of Cale’s viola drowned out his words in sonic analog to a drug overdose. A fittingly cacophonous, unhinged, extended “Sister Ray,” with pretty much every player on stage, didn’t dwell much on lyrics, instead searching for a mainline of nirvana in the chaos, and intermittently finding it.
The most touching moment, however, was the debut album’s lead track, “Sunday Morning,” slotted near the end of the program. Chairlift’s Caroline Polacheck, the night’s most convincing Nico stand-in, joined Cale to sing it – fitting, as the song was first imagined as a showpiece for the German chanteuse, though Reed ultimately sang it on the LP. With faded Sixties Instamatic-style images of Times Square and seedy old New York projected behind him, Cale sang creakily about “all the streets you crossed not so long ago,” adding a half-century’s worth of wistfulness to Reed’s words and, indeed, making it seem not so long ago at all.
“I’m Waiting for the Man”
“White Light/White Heat”
“All Tomorrow’s Parties”
“Venus in Furs”
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
“There She Goes Again”
“Run Run Run”
“The Black Angel’s Death Song”
“Lady Godiva’s Operation”