Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: The Velvet Underground – Live At Max’s Kansas City

on November 10, 2008, 3:00pm

It had been nine weeks in the summer of 1970 since Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Doug and Billy Yule began the two-sets-a-night marathon in their home city of New York. Max’s Kansas City would be The Velvet Underground’s stage as the band ended their Loaded tour after being cut off from Atlantic records due to poor sales. The event would also mark the end of Lou Reed’s career with the band he helped start (excluding short reunions in the early nineties). On the last night of their extended stay, then band’s manager, Andy Warhol, sent long-time friend Brigid Polk with a small tape recorder to capture the two sets. Having been recorded as a bootleg, it would go on to be the first of its kind, and it would not be touched again until 30 years later.

Originally set at ten cuts for release in 1972, the LP omits much of the in between banter, but in 2004 the show was re-released as a two CD set. What it captured was the entire night, from tuning instruments to the band members ordering drinks and talking with friends. Live At Max’s Kansas City is vivid and real, giving one of the most intimate looks into one of the worlds most revered bands.

“Good evening, and this is The Velvet Underground. You are allowed to dance if you want to”, Reed humbly announced as he opened the night. After a quick story to describe the opening number, the first track “I’m Waiting for The Man” kicks in. The sound captured that night is evidently impressive given the recording equipment, a mono tape recorder. Reeds voice is even more intense as he sings and at times strains through the words with passion. The songs are quick but never short, with Reed and Doug Yule narrating the stories of love and drug abuse. “I’m Set Free” slows things down early. It has been a long few months, and the band knows how to pace themselves for a long night.

Live, these songs open up more. The musical personalities of each member become deeper and more approachable, and the words gain even more solidarity in their meaning. “Go get me a double” is shouted before launching into “Sweet Jane”, the second track on the original release. The song is talked up as easy with a “great ending”, and it is just that with Yule helping out on the vocals. The track then builds into its two-chord rock and roll frenzy for the wild finish.

The then new track, “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, shows off the group’s early rock influences with a surfer flair. What is interesting about the song is that it’s one of the tracks that obviously links the band’s influence on punk rock with its speed, simplicity, and sloppier than usual vocals. At the same time, however, it could also be seen as a throw back to the earliest influences of rock and blues. It serves as a reminder of how all rock and roll is related. Finishing off the first side, “Beginning To See The Light” keeps in the style of VU, this time with Yule on lead vocals which come across as distant when compared to Reed’s, but that mostly is due to the sound recording, not personal style. Yule’s style is distinctly different in that he is the missing link between rock and punk rock for the band. He is the sloppier element with strains on the verge of a scream, but without taking it all the way.

Live rarities, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Pale Blue Eyes”, slow down the whirlwind pace and show VU’s softer side. The latter of the two features vocals parts that are at times the best you could have heard from the band, with a soft bluesy solo bridging the song to the end of the heartbreaking story.  A ’50s theme takes over showing their toned down side with “Femme Fatal”, a comical ode to being a bitch. “After Hours” finishes Reed’s version of the night originally, but on the re-release it appears higher in the set list. You can tell why he made the move though, as its name suggests, it is an appropriate closer. The song glides the mood from saddening to an upbeat goodbye with the help of an old school country influence.

The Velvet Underground is known for being groundbreaking, and they prove it with their simplicity. You don’t have to be complicated to shake up the status quo. We know that very well now, but it is thanks to them that we have that creative knowledge. As time goes, the influence of this band will only continue to unroll, and with this album we have the opportunity to peer into their lives and music as it was then.

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