Lou Reed Week - Assessing The Live Albums

Whilst it's perfectly possible to get all of your Lou Reed kicks from his studio albums, I believe that the true essence of his genius can be found on his live albums. They range from fierce and confrontational to sweet and mellow, but the loose performances, the sheer passion and the unremitting flow of words ensure that no matter what he's playing, and no matter when he's playing it, the effect is never anything less than mercurial.

The appeal is threefold. First, there's the dedication to the material that dictates that, when playing live, Lou Reed is often the least technically talented musician onstage. His backing bands were always comprised of trusted and road-honed cohorts, and the songs were always adapted to suit their individual styles. As a result, songs take on a whole new life in a live setting, yet do so in such a way as to retain their original essence.

Second is the archivist's approach Lou took to setlists. Whilst including many a crowd-pleaser, Lou would delve into the most obscure corners of his back catalogue, emerging with half-forgotten lumps of coal which, live, he would transform into glittering gems.

Finally, there's the man himself. His range might have been limited and, in later years, he might have been all but static, but Lou's stage presence was so magnetic you can almost hear it on the live recordings. It's in the reactions of the crowd – their laughter and cheers – and in his stage patter which, like the songs themselves, ranges from the languid and cool to the deranged amphetamine rant. In early years he'd bark his lyrics with bile and bite, but as he aged his voice took on a refined and gravelly grace, to the point that his delivery is, at times, unbearably moving.

In this week following his passing I've found myself listening to Lou Reed's live albums above all else. These recordings – whether they're soaring and searing or simple and elegiac – are without exception indispensable to anyone with even a modicum of interest in Lou Reed's ability to make something beautiful out of something ugly.

I'm only looking at his solo live albums, which means that I'm emitting not just his Velvet Underground work, but also his collaborations with John Cale, Nico, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn and The Metal Machine Trio. They're presented in chronological order, which does not necessarily correspond with their order of release.

American Poet (2001)

Though only officially released in 2001 (it had long been making the rounds as a bootleg), this is actually from the early days of Lou Reed's solo career. It features material from his eponymous debut, the freshly released Transformer and several Velvet Underground songs, which were seemingly just in the process of being “rediscovered”.

The sound is clean, crisp and immensely satisfying, though the main appeal is the inclusion of a WKJY interview, in which Lou talks about his time spent in England recording Transformer with David Bowie. He shrugs off the implications that they were sleeping together, but expresses his appreciation of the English term “naughty”. His English accent is hilarious.

Best of all, the special edition version I received as a gift included a t-shirt!

Rock'n'Roll Animal/Lou Reed Live (1974-75)

Despite the man himself apparently not being a fan, Rock'n'Roll Animal is now a canonical example of bold, brash, bombastic and sexually ambiguous 70s rock. In the hands of this phenomenally potent sextet, these dark songs, largely drawn from Berlin and The Velvet Underground, become technicolour firework displays, verging from being punishingly intense to irresistibly joyous, often within the space of the same song. The moment when Steve Hunter's soaring intro segues into the riff from Sweet Jane, followed by an almighty roar from the crowd, must be one of the most exciting moments in the history of recorded sound.

But to get the full show, not only do you need the special edition of Rock'n'Roll Animal, you also need the Lou Reed Live album, which was originally released a year later. You then need to sequence the songs thus. As a result, the animal will evolve into a 90 minute Rock'N'Roll MONSTER, and all will be right in the world.

Retain the Rock'n'Roll Animal cover for your fan-made double album, though. The cover of Lou Reed Live has always reminded me of Mason Verger.

Take No Prisoners (1978)

This one's notorious for having more in common with a stand-up routine than a live album. And, yes, on two or three occasions Lou abandons the song completely, instead embarking upon long, rambling amphetamine monologues concerning whatever happens to pop into his mind or his line of sight.

Yet with the musical backing (the band do a great job of keeping it together throughout the rambling), this sounds more like riotous performance poetry than drug-addled rants. I could listen to Lou Reed recite the phone book, so to hear him so unhinged is frequently hilarious and often a genuine pleasure. The words keep coming and never stop. Ever. Oh, to have been in the audience. Springsteen was there! At one point he even gets a call-out, presumably because he'd just appeared, incognito, on Street Hassle.

People seem to forget, though, that amongst these moments of madness are actual songs, played in full, with no digressions. And they're largely excellent. In the stoned, droning interpretations of Satellite of Love and Pale Blue Eyes you can hear the roots of shoegaze, specifically Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. The foul-mouthed version of Street Hassle sounds like a field recording of hard-boiled street chatter, and during the intro of I Wanna Be Black, Lou Reed temporarily fronts the best darn bar band in the universe.

Strangest, though, is the 14 minute version of I'm Waiting For My Man, which actually features the lyrics from Temporary Thing whilst managing to sound like neither song. And that man on the cover terrifies me. He's exactly the sort of violent amoral horror I pictured when I read William Burroughs's Wild Boys.

Live In Italy (1984)

The liner notes to this one seem to be addressed to fans of guitarist Robert Quine, implying that Live In Italy is better considered as an example of his rare abilities than it is a live Lou Reed document. Yet as incendiary as Quine's work is, Live In Italy still has much to offer your common or garden Lou Reed obsessive.

Some of the performances on this album are so superior to their studio originals that they should be considered the definitive versions. Indeed, I would not hesitate to place the Live In Italy version of Kill Your Sons in my top five list of Lou Reed songs. The seamless mix of Some Kinda Love and Sister Ray into a sizzling 15 minute onslaught is similarly inspired.

Live In Italy is perfectly complemented by the 1991 concert film A Night With Lou Reed. It was recorded at about the same time and features songs not included on the album (though loses five in the process). However, these songs are what you might call “deep cuts” from some of his lesser known 80s albums. Needless to say, they sound so much better live.

I've got A Night With Lou Reed on VHS. It is available on DVD, but this version apparently omits Lou's interactions with the crowd, an essential part of any live experience.

Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)

This is it, my personal pick of Lou Reed at his very best. This is the side of him I like most: Old enough that his words and his voice has a solemn gravity, but not so old that you can't still hear the fire in his belly.

Recorded during Laurie Anderson's Meltdown Festival, Perfect Night takes the very bare bones of a rock band – two guitars, bass and drums – and from this simple combination creates pure incandescent magic. I know it was recorded in some dark and cavernous concert hall, but when I hear some of these performances I can't help but picture a brightly-lit glass house, filled with plants, through the ceiling of which you can see a spellbinding night sky, so swirling in stars as to appear almost purple.

It's interesting how all the “fan favourites” are played first. The opening duo of I'll Be Your Mirror and Perfect Day is hard to beat, and the version of The Kids, shorn of the unbearable crying of children, cuts to the core of this heartbreaking song where previously it might have been considered exploitative.

Towards the end you get a strange choice of songs. The title track from New Sensations shines for the very first time, and The Original Wrapper, where on record it might have been considered a joke, live becomes such an incredible flow of words that there might well be truth in Reed's claim that he was rapping before anyone else.

To cap off the evening with Sex With Your Parents, his rant against Republicans, is a fine example of his perverse humour at play, but he instantly wins back the favour of those he may have alienated with a triumphant Dirty Blvd.

And in the middle you get two songs which simply cannot be found anywhere else: Into The Divine and Talking Book, the latter of which doesn't receive nearly as much love as it deserves.

Animal Serenade (2004)

This is Lou Reed in full elder-statesman of rock mode, playing largely without drums with a veteran backing band, his Tai Chi master throwing shapes to the side of the stage. The tone is warm, welcoming and mellow throughout, as Lou draws from his entire career across 19 ½ songs (we only get the opening riff of Sweet Jane, as we're told that the secret to success is to secretly include a fourth chord in a three chord song).

Some of Animal Serenade is stunning. Lou boasts from the outset that we're witnessing a real band, that nothing will be pre-recorded, and the performances are fantastic throughout. Special mention goes to the sweet, soulful versions of Sunday Morning, Call On Me and Vanishing Act, whilst Lou's reading of The Raven is far superior to Willem Dafoe's from the album of the same name.

Sharing vocal duties are bassist and BFF Fernando Saunders and Antony Hegarty, who the following year would receive due recognition as an artist in his own right with his beautiful I Am A Bird Now album. On Animal Serenade, he's allowed to sing lead on Candy Says, and the results are devastating.

Less appealing is when the spotlight is given to Fernando Saunders for a seven minute song of his own composition called Reviens Cherie. Don't get me wrong, he has a gorgeous voice, and it's touching sign of admiration and respect that Lou should have given him the opportunity to steal the show, but still. The song's nowhere near as strong as anything else played, and you have to wonder how many people went to the bar for its duration.

Berlin: Live At St. Ann's Warehouse (2008)

Berlin, played in all its brutal, terrifying and poignant entirely, for the first time in 30 years. What's not to love? The songs have been fleshed out to allow for soloing, meaning that there's a certain looseness to this that's often missing from attempts to play entire albums back to back in the live setting.

Also stunning to think is that, apart from the cafĂ© clatter at the start of the title track, not a single sound is heard that isn't being played live. Bob Ezrin himself – the maniac who captured the anguished cries of his own children on the original album – conducts a small orchestra whilst wearing a lab coat befitting of his status as a mad scientist of the studio.

Apart from the added guitar dynamics, some of the songs are almost indistinguishable from their studio originals. That said, there's a real weight to the music that you can only ever get from musicians playing live together in the same room. Some of the vocals, too, are slightly preferable. I simply cannot listen to the original version of The Kids. I just can't. Live, though, Lou barks the words “they're taking her children away” with palpable disgust, meaning that a song that was originally upsetting and nihilistic now becomes more vitriolic, but no less bleak. It's somehow easier to take.

Come for Berlin, but stay for the encore. Continuing the gloomy and elegiac feel of the album is another chance to hear Antony sing Candy Says (always welcome) and a version of Rock Minuet that I'd use to convince a doubter that it might even be an understatement to describe Lou Reed as a genius.

The only let-down is a tired version of Sweet Jane, a crowd-pleaser that attempts to throw light where it need not have been thrown. In the film version of this concert, which is worth 80 minutes of anybody's time, this closing number is cut short by the credits. It's no great loss.

And finally, here's some footage from his last ever solo show, at London's Royal Festival Hall in August 2012.

He still had it: