Live bootlegs are rarely essential, but this exhaustive documentation of a crucial moment in Velvets history is definitely one of them.
There are few bands bootlegged quite like the Velvet Underground, especially because theirs is a different sort of bootleg culture. Sure, you have bands like the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam whose fans famously trade tapes of nearly every show that’s ever been played by their group of choice, but the scarcity of quality Velvets live recordings makes even the poorest-quality releases sought after in certain quarters. This makes The Complete Matrix Tapes distinct for its relatively high quality, but that’s not what makes it a necessary addition to the Velvets discography. The album also serves as an important piece of the band’s history, a live document of their evolution from avant-garde sideshow to full-fledged rock band.
Recorded in San Francisco shortly after the release of the band’s self-titled third album, The Complete Matrix Tapes features some of the earliest live performances with Doug Yule as a member of the band. The addition of Yule created a different dynamic in the band; he acted as more of a complement to Lou Reed, whereas John Cale served as a foil for Reed to play off of. The result was a more conventional sound with Reed firmly taking center stage, which he does throughout both live sets. The Velvet Underground that took the stage at the Matrix was a far more cohesive unit than the one that was part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which is not nearly the insult that it sounds like. While the Velvets lost some of their initial unpredictability, they gained a sharpness from their later emphasis on songcraft.
Saying that they were a more cohesive band is not implying that they became tighter or more concise in their playing. The Complete Matrix Tapes features its fair share of extended jams, with several tracks stretched well beyond their typical length. The evolution of the Velvet Underground into their later form was slow and subtle, far from a jarring stylistic shift. What is gone is that sense of danger that used to follow the band around, but the openness and--dare I say--warmth of the band is welcome. There’s something delightful about the self-effacing way that Reed introduces “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” as if Warhol and 1966 are but distant memories of a misspent youth. It’s hard to tell if it’s genuine or bullshit, but Reed was always one of the best at toeing that line.
The Velvet Underground always had a fondness for tweaking and re-working their songs in a live setting, so The Complete Matrix Tapes are anything but a direct album-to-stage translation of the band’s work. As previously mentioned, the band give smoother, more measured performances of their chaotic early work (save for a half-hour rendition of “Sister Ray,” which can only ever be performed as a moment of total anarchy) but even the songs that would eventually make up Loaded and the series of post-breakup rarities compilations can be heard in a more somber tone. “Sweet Jane” appears as Velvets-gone-lounge, with Reed’s wry smirk essentially audible. “I Can’t Stand It” (which Reed introduces as “a song about the sorrows of the contemporary world”) is closer to a rock song, but even then, the band’s performance is subdued and subtle.
For a band that lasted for such a short amount of time, the Velvet Underground covered so much ground that there’s still new ideas to unpack. While some of this material may have already been released (as is the case with most “official” releases of VU bootlegs) that doesn’t make The Complete Matrix Tapes any less essential. To hear one of the greatest bands of all time make this sort of conscious evolution in front of an audience is something special and something that fans rarely get to experience. This is as close as many of us will get with the Velvet Underground, but it’s more than worth it.