Lou Reed, John Cale & Nico

Le Bataclan '72 (Alchemy Entertainment)

More Lou/VU live, of which there have been plenty and then some--more on-the-road discs than in-the-studio ones, if you're willing to do the math and include the barely legal imports worth the price of emission. (The best remains 1969 Velvet Underground Live, with its unreleased songs and choruses; not bad was 2001's mucky-sounding Bootleg Series: Volume 1, which grows on you like body hair in your late 30s.) But the fetishist, the only variety of VU fan there is, will find plenty of reasons to celebrate this oddity from 1972, which finds the old band together again (sort of, though with no Mo, Sterling or Tucker, it's way less) for what sounds like a master's recital performed in front of awed undergrads. Serene and studious is how Lou and John and Nico played it this January night; sedate and solemn is how the French received it, as though afraid of making the slightest noise that might scare off the rock-and-roll animals imported from the Manhattan zoo.

This disc captures the VU before history knew what to make of the band; it was just something that existed, till it didn't any longer. Cale and Nico had their own records out by '72 and play a few selections from them here; Reed had not yet released his solo debut. They're old partners at new beginnings, which may be why the album, made with just violin and piano and harmonium and acoustic guitar, sounds at once so tentative and yet so adventurous: "Waiting for the Man" never sounded more like hymnal; "Black Angel's Death Song" never sounded less "unintelligble," as Reed excuses the original by way of nyuk-nyuk introduction; "Femme Fatale" never sounded more alive. They're having fun (Reed introduces the brand-new "Berlin" as his "Barbra Streisand song" and then performs it as though he were Frank Sinatra) as only fellow survivors can, but never at the expense of the music, which takes a deep breath and allows a final grin and bow. Early pressings of the disc close with rehearsal versions of "Candy Says" and "Pale Blue Eyes," which suggest the ultimate, and maddening, what-if?

 
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