Lou Reed’s Berlin stands out as one of the most misunderstood rock albums of all time. Released in 1973, the New York native’s third studio effort is a concept album which chronicles the doomed relationship of Caroline and Jim, a young couple whose lives are torn apart by drugs and infidelity – a decidedly different follow up to Reed’s mega hit Transformer. The album was destroyed upon its initial release – criticized as a failure and an insult to listeners. How time changes things. Berlin became one of Reed’s most influential works and has been heralded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. The failure of Berlin upon its release halted Reed’s plan to tour with the release. Over thirty years later, Reed at last has had the opportunity to perform the full album live.
Reed’s live performance of Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse is an exciting revisiting. His band consists of Fernando Saunders, Tony “Thunder” Smith, Rupert Christie, and original album guitarist Steve Hunter plus a seven piece orchestra, a twelve person youth chorus, and backing vocals by Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). A fantastic line-up adding up to a great experience. Everything you could hope for from a live recorded performance is here – heightened energy, killer jams and solos, interesting changes in lyrical delivery, and guest singers. Reed is having a lot of fun, and it shows. His now ruddy and aged voice transforms the album into a cautionary tale from the narrative perspective of someone older and wiser: a sad story set in a city divided by a horrible wall, in a country that doesn’t exist any more. The introductory track features some of the clustered sounds of the original intro to “Berlin” but also a refrain from the final track, “Sad Song” foreshadowing the dark end to come.
The on-stage orchestrations flesh out original album’s nicely and in places expend the sound moreso, such as the breakdown with screaming children’s voices towards the end of “The Kids”. The new orchestration allows that intense moment to swell to mammoth proportions before it immediately halts leaving Reed’s voice alone with an acoustic guitar. Steve Hunter’s solos smoke, to say the very least. “How Do You Think it Feels” is torn wide open by his incredible guitar prowess. His closing solo to the song, accompanied by the horns section, is a powerhouse of sound. “Men of Good Fortune”‘s somewhat repetitious stylings are brushed aside in an aching and wild guitar finale by Reed – stoking the fire of an old song, realizing its full potential. “Oh, Jim” has a jam between Reed and Hunter, fun on disc and even more in the film. “Oh my goodness gracious,” says Reed. I couldn’t agree more.
The classic “Caroline Says”, broken in two parts and essentially the heart of the album, is lovingly returned to life. The climax of Part One is serious live cohesion between the band and the orchestra. The melancholy narration of Part Two is expanded by Reed. Rather than just singing the lyrics, Reed heightens the words with the inflections of dialogue. Some of the lines are delivered almost as if he were sobbing and when he sings/says “I don’t love you anymore” it feels aching and real. The final chorus, “It’s so cold in Alaska”, is made all the more earnest in its sadness by the combined voices of Sharon Jones and Antony. As the bleak end of the story comes to a rise with Caroline’s suicide in “The Bed”, the youth chorus takes a new spin on that final terrifying collage of voices – reinterpreting the layered mixing of the original as an equally unnerving human recreation of a fallout siren. “Sad Song” is as beautiful a finale as ever. What the limited on-stage orchestra can’t replicate from the original final crescendo, Reed makes up for with an accompaniment of smoldering guitarman-ship.
The encore is three songs: two Velvet Underground classics (“Candy Says” and “Sweet Jane”) and a more recent Reed composition – “Rock Minuet”. “Candy Says” is a duet between Reed and Antony, with Antony in the spotlight. His androgynous and warbling voice is a perfect fit, and he can hit all the high notes Reed’s voice abandoned long ago. “Rock Minuet”, being a newer song, hasn’t changed much from its original. Much like “Candy Says”, “Minuet”‘s darkness and melancholic mood extend the sad presence of Berlin‘s finale. “Sweet Jane” washes all that gloominess away with fun and lively rock ‘n’ roll.
When it comes to experiencing Berlin: Live, you have two choices – either you pick up the album or you get a copy of the concert film which has been out since September 30th. The film is directed by modern artist-turned Academy Award Nominated director, Julian Schnabel. What’s exciting about it is that it attempts to do more with the concert than just the base performance. Music video-esque clips of the main characters filmed by Schnabel’s daughter, Lola Montes Schnabel, intersect the concert footage and are projected behind the performers. I was initially very excited by this. The opening features video of Caroline’s birthday party during the part of “Berlin”‘s audio mishmash where “Happy Birthday” is sung. I thought that perhaps they were going to establish a more detailed narrative, which would’ve been really cool. That wasn’t the case. The neat video cut-aways, at least ones of any substance, are few and far between. Most additional video content consists of transitions with dirty and paint-splotched film distortion, which is a neat way to spice up concert footage, but really just an effect. The camera shots are decent but have some failings, such as really sloppy handling of Antony’s frequent posture shifts during “Candy Says” and almost never showing the fingers of the guitar players during solos.
Every concert film wants to be “an extrordinary concert experience,” as Ronnie Schieb of Variety said about this film. There’s only so much you can do with people performing on stage to translate the live energy into something that can be replicated, shared, and possibly heightened. The actuality is that the Berlin film is just good. It’s different, it’s fun, but it doesn’t hit that point where a concert film becomes truly exceptional – such as Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (directed by Jonathan Demme) or The Band’s The Last Waltz (directed by Martin Scorsese).
As with most concert movies and subsequent albums, the audio is virtually identical. If you had to choose between the film or the album I’d suggest the album. The film isn’t at the core of the experience. It would’ve been nice if the film and the album had been packaged together at a good price; that would’ve made owning both more appealing. As it stands, anyone who loves the original Berlin, or simply loves concert albums will have to hear Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse. It’s a fantastic instance of both an artist revisiting their work and how the live experience can improve upon greatness.