Back in the mid- to late 1960s, Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground was famous for playing at Andy Warhol’s Factory, as well as at the artist’s East Village dance club the Dom. It was their sound rather than their antics, however, that was the main attraction. The Velvets’ sound was loud, nasty, cool, and strange. The terror and excitement that defined songs like “Heroin” was not to be found in their stage demeanor. They were known for just standing around, playing their music with straight faces and motionless bodies as wild dancers paraded in front of them or avant-garde films streamed behind them.
That dynamic has persisted through much of Reed’s career — while his music is brimming with life and action, his stage presence has always left something to be desired. For that reason, Spanish Fly: Live in Spain, Lou Reed’s latest concert DVD release, is a bit puzzling. Sanctuary Records is promoting the disk as a live greatest hits collection, but how much better is the consumer served by seeing Reed perform his hits rather than just listening? Unfortunately, not much.
Reed, who is now in his late 50s, appears on stage at the Benicassim Festival in Spain wearing glasses, a plain black T-shirt, and a pair of black jeans, performs forty years worth of material with his customary monotony. Even on upbeat rock tunes like “Sweet Jane” and “Romeo Had Juliette,” Reed stands still in the center of the stage, playing his guitar and delivering his vocals with a businesslike efficiency and seriousness. The most animated person on stage is Reed’s excellent cello player, Jane Scarpantoni. During the haunting Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs,” Scarpantoni delivers a wild and captivating atonal solo, cascading up and down the cello as she swings her long dark hair all about. Reed, perhaps recognizing his own dour demeanor, has surrounded himself with a group of young and energetic musicians. In addition to Scarpantoni, guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders, and drummer Tony Smith inject a jolt of excitement and pep into a stage show that would otherwise sag under the seriousness and predictability of Reed’s performance.
The set list covers Reed’s greatest hits, such as “Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Perfect Day,” as well as some of his more recent material, like “Modern Dance,” “Why Do You Talk,” and “Ecstasy.” Reed’s voice is in fine form (for him), but as a big Velvet Underground fan, I have to admit that I have very disappointed by his guitar work. The VU records from the late 1960s were brimming with wild distortion and uncontrollable energy, while Reed’s fretwork on Spanish Fly is limited mostly to tame rhythm guitar playing. When he does attempt a guitar solo, as he does on “Romeo Had Juliette,” Reed seems tentative, and limits himself to simple runs on only one string. While the tone is plenty distorted, the mood being transmitted is anything but wild; like most of Lou Reed’s stage demeanor, its quite tame and tired. As a live audio collection, Spanish Fly would have passable; as a live visual collection, it fails to hit the mark.