"Alone, even doing nothing, you do not waste your time. You do, almost always, in company. No encounter with yourself can be altogether sterile: Something necessarily emerges, even if only the hope of some day meeting yourself again." (E.M. Cioran)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Lou Reed's 'Berlin' at the State Theatre, Sydney

What a treat. The chance to see Lou Reed perform his seminal 1973 concept album - the maligned and often dismissed, ahead-of-its-time 'Berlin' - as a multi-media song cycle - the headlining act of this year's Sydney Festival. Before Sydney, 'Berlin' had been performed over four nights at 'St Ann's Warehouse', a New York artspace, a month earlier. Clearly, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

The show, directed by the artist/film maker Julian Schnabel with Bob Ezrin, the original album producer, and Hal Willner as music producers included strings, horns, choristers (12 singers from the Australian Youth Choir) and touches of cabaret. The band included Lou's long-serving bass player, Fernando Saunders, with Tony Smith on drums, Steve Hunter on guitar (who played on all the original recordings) and Rob Wasserman on upright electric bass. Guest vocalists included Antony Hegerty (of Antony and the Johnsons) and soul diva, Sharon Jones.

The show played out like a sort of Brechtian fable - the melancholy story of a relationship with its blissful beginnings and indulgences and its decline into abuse, burnout, despair and ultimate tragedy. Lou Reed has this amazing ability to bring stories from such melancholic underworlds to life and make them beautiful. He is able to 'report' them without moralising and when performed, they are poetry. Julian Schnabel's set included screens printed with subtle 'Oriental' designs and calligraphy, with filmed scenes illustrating the story - while remaining impressionistic and non-dominant - projected onto them. Highlights for me were 'Men of Good Fortune', which was nicely cynical and could've been, at least in part, about any number of modern-day tyrants, 'Oh Jim' (especially the stripped-down part), 'Caroline Says' (especially II) and 'The Bed'. Sublime.

After the songs were finished (it seemed as if it'd only been a few minutes), I was wondering if the audience's thunderous pounding for an encore would be fruitful. After all, 'Berlin' had been performed. However, back they came - albeit without the strings, horns and choir - just Lou, the band, Antony and Sharon. First up, they launched into 'Sweet Jane'. I started thinking that it was too much of a crowd pleaser and that it might ruin the mood, but when Sharon Jones took over and gave it the soul treatment, I was won back all over again. After this, things quietened down and 'Candy Says' was next - performed as a duet between Lou and Antony. I hadn't seen Antony before and I was gobsmacked - brought to tears in a matter of seconds. He has a voice that I can only describe as something between Nina Simone and an angel, but there is more to it than that. He injects so much feeling and pain that it is almost unbearable. The final song of the night was the strong and grinding rock 'n' roll of 'Rock Minuet' from Lou's 2000 album, 'Ecstasy', which he'd performed during his last visit in 2000.

All in all - totally killer!

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