Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio
(The Junction, Cambridge, 17 April, and Royal Festival Hall, London, April 19th 2010 reviews and pencil drawing by Geoff Winston)
It all began with a low, fluctuating electronic hum, the backdrop to the audience's lively chatter, eagerly anticipating what was to be an uncompromising musical event.
Before the performance, the musicians were briefly onstage to adjust their settings, and moments later were in a huddle by the mixing desk at the back of the matt black auditorium for a pre-concert team talk; Lou Reed, the elder statesman - wiry, a twinkle in his eye, short curly hair and leathery complexion, with his lanky, long-haired co-musicians and their technicians.
Centre-stage, Reed in short leather jacket, crouched, almost invisible, behind a table strewn with electronic hardware, grinding granite-like sounds from his guitars. To the left was Sarth Calhoun, processing the sound with the aid of two Apple Macs, a luminous green glow illuminating his working area; to the right, Ulrich Krieger, on tenor sax which was manipulated as the concert opened, to create dense feedback, bumps and pulses.
Waves of reverberating sound were layered to create an unremitting aural assault. Yet this is not to say that it was not compelling. Moving on from his 1975 Metal Machine Music albums, which have an energised, uplifting quality, and which Reed says were motivated by his love of guitar feedback, this music goes in to a different zone. This was a searching, extreme form which echoes the spirit of our times - at times a music of great sadness, interwoven with a echoes of conflict and technical overabundance.
There was no let-up for the first half of the set. Occasionally, Reed's guitars were exchanged and the textures were modified. There was a moment of quiet respite and an ambient passage ensued, followed by brief spells of sharp, free-jazz blowing from Kriege and a resonant bell-like tone, rising above the white noise. Reed continued to deliver hefty, wailing washes of sound, walking a tightrope between rock, noise and the free-jazz of his hero, Ornette Coleman.
This was an incontrovertably extreme and physically demanding concert. The exhausted musicians were rewarded by an appreciative audience, to whom Lou Reed mouthed an equally appreciative 'thank you'.
Whether you liked it or not, this is the sort of proposition that shapes the very definition of music. Maybe this is the music the Velvet Underground wanted to be ...
Royal Festival Hall
In the generous spaces of the RFH, the concert was no less intense than the Cambridge opener; however, the pace was noticeably modulated and the sound separation clearly defined; Krieger, the sax player was clean and sharp, and was given full rein; a massive gong and giant drum were an addition to the armoury, complementing Calhoun’s thudding electronic percussion.
The concert opened with aircraft and helicopter-like sounds and chest-vibrating bass pulses. Yet, in this space, Reed’s guitar playing came to the fore, and, later in the concert, he rose from his seat to stalk the stage while playing; his electronic instrumentation was also a key component of the central section of this unbroken sequence.
Reed was resolutely in charge, gesturing to ensure that his sound-plan was executed as he’d envisioned it and had been observed rigorously instructing his musicians at rehearsal earlier in the day. The percussion added a dramatic dimension when beaten with padded mallets and Reed himself added the final flourishes with a series of huge crashes applied with outsize mallets. ‘Metal Machine Music lives on,’ pronounced Reed as they took their bows. On these showings it is in rude health!