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THE VELVET UNDERGROUND - Live At Max's Kansas City   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Wednesday, 01 September 2004
The Greatest Band Of All Time? Maybe. But not on this.

 

If is the middle word in life, man. If The Velvet Underground had sold merely handfuls of records, if Lou Reed had never hit solo stardom, if they had just faded to obscurity then this record would never exist. Hell, it's debatable if it should exist.

 

A friend of the band plonks a huge mono tape recorder onto a table in a deserted bar, sticks their vocal mic in the direction of the band, and presses record. A band play some songs, then stop. But the band isn't really The Velvet Underground.

 

It's Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, a new bassist, and the bassist's brother on drums, pressganged to play the shows after Moe Tucker became too pregnant to play.

 

Their new bassist - Doug Yale - deputising for the ousted John Cale, mumbles along at some points : knowing the words but not really what they mean. And how can a bass guitar replace a guy who can play viola, bass, piano, and sing...? Well it can't. Here the band sound constrained. Trying to match the wide expanses of ability they once had. Trying to squeeze the widescreen experience in their heads and on the record into a smaller frame. It's the difference between going to the movies, and watching Star Wars on a portable television.

 

Lou Reed, meanwhile jumps ship and leaves the band the minute he comes off stage.

 

Is this The Velvet Underground?

 

Or is this a cynical cash-in?

 

A ‘bootleg the bootleggers' release of a warts and all show that shows that The Velvet Underground aren't always as good as people tell you they are.

 

Sure there's some great songs here, but you don't need them in this form. You don't need mono bootleg recordings of the band performing to an empty upstairs bar in New York. 

 

You don't need a double CD of 98 minutes of the band stumbling through songs that sometimes the bassist and rummer can't always remember. And a hastily-tacked on radio advert for the original vinyl edition of the album bumped to the end of the CD. 

 

You don't need to hear the anodyne conversations on ajoining tables that are often far clearer than the music itself.

 

"Candy Says" for example, manages to be about how some dull stoner guy went to see Patton at the cinema, and tries to pick up a girl with a tedious discussion about the movie. Hear her blow him off, preserved forever on iTunes.

 

These days, he probably tells his kids (who are bored of the story), about how he was There, Man, and Easy Rider weren't a film man, it was real life, you know.

 

Thankfully, most of the thin crowd (and you can count individual clappers between the songs, so spartan is the attendance) shut up during the songs.

 

And there you have it. The Velvet Underground were a great band. It's not my place to blow smoke up their ass about it. They were great, and they wrote great songs, and made better records than most people can even aspire to, yet alone record. But this is not one of those records. This is a cheap, crapply-recorded bootleg of a live show in 1970,now handily expanded to include the whole set they played that night, over two CD's.

 

If you have every other Velvet Underground record, you need this. If you don't, then you don't. Start somewhere else, somewhere downriver, and then head here, upriver, upstream, deep into the jungle of semi-bootleg, poorly recorded live shows. In the meantime, if you must buy one Velvet Underground record, don't buy this one. 

 

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