Last night marked the opening night of New York’s newest and hottest venue — Chelsea’s Highline Ballroom — the kind of place where asking for a simple glass of water elicits a “Sparkling or regular?” from the gorgeous barkeep and pomegranate martinis are served in martini glasses, albeit plastic ones. So it was perhaps an odd choice to have nitty-gritty curmudgeon king of New York Lou Reed performing the inaugural show. Even odder was his chosen set-list, which was practically free of his best-known tracks, favoring instead Reed’s later and more obscure compositions. Halfway through the hour and forty minute long set, expectations of hearing Reed’s hit single “Walk on the Wild Side” and classics like “Perfect Day” were flat-lining. No drum set beat behind Reed as he performed a slew of new-ish songs spanning his catalogue from 1988’s New York and 2003’s The Raven. Not exactly sweet for anyone who came to see him play the greatest hits, but awesome for those enticed by Lou Reed the poet.
Folk-punks Okkervil River opened the set, with frontman Will Sheff sounding like a younger, smoke-free Lou. And then the man himself sauntered on stage with his usual slouched bravado. Wearing a sleeveless shirt that showed off his Tai Chi-sculpted arms, Reed dove into a guitar solo that hit every pitch and made the crowd freak with each chord change. Soon, though, it was Reed who was freaking out. Within minutes of his second tune “What’s Good?” — after singing about how life is like bacon and soda — the rocker turned to his monitor guy and barked, “Bring the voice up! Pay attention and watch me!” before going back into the tune. Perhaps life’s more like anchovies and diet soda? Two verses later he demanded that the hazer on stage be turned off explaining, “There’s a reason I’m still here.” Perhaps still puffed up from being honored last week with Syracuse University’s George Arents Pioneer Medal for Excellence in the Arts, Reed boasted to the crowd that he quit smoking years ago, and planned to be around for another fifteen.
By the fourth tune — at which time the audience had gotten to know the name of everyone in his crew — Reed was smiling again. Hanging up his guitar and getting behind the synthezier, he performed two tracks off his 1990 collaboration with Velvet Underground founding member John Cale, Songs for Drella, a homage to late friend and artistic visionary Andy Warhol, nicknamed Drella (a combination of “Dracula” and “Cinderella”).
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Any earlier problems where forgotten at show’s end. Those who’d stayed through the end of the set begged for a double encore but were denied. But if the persistent applause was any indication, the audience was indeed paying attention the whole time.