ETHER FESTIVAL: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music Trio at the Royal Festival Hall, 19/04/10

Lou Reed, photo by Amy-Beth McNeely

Lou Reed walked into a hall that had been humming to itself for twenty minutes, four guitars propped up against amps creating a pulsing malevolence. He looked much older and frailer than I was expecting. Glasses perched on his gaunt face, he shuffled over to the source of the billowing noise, and began carefully inspecting the equipment. A sound engineer (and can you imagine anything worse than serving as sound engineer for the famously grumpy and particular Lou Reed?) stood nervously just to his right, like a condemned man awaiting execution. After some fiddling, Lou seemed to be “happy”, or at least “no more unhappy than normal”, and picked up one of the guitars to begin an extraordinary show which was to turn the clock back decades, and even put a smile on the curmudgeon’s face. This performance was of a very different Metal Machine Music to the 1975 original, but one equally full of thrilling and indeed youthful experimentalism.

Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music Trio, photo by Amy-Beth McNeely

Part of that would be due to the fact that for this tour, Lou Reed is flanked by a couple of fresh faces in young electronic musician Sarth Calhoun and the saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, a member of Alan Licht’s Text of Light. Krieger came to Reed’s attention via his (genius? insane?) efforts to transcribe the 1975 MMM for orchestra. The version played tonight differed not just because of the instrumentation: it also felt more structured, with Reed guiding the others along a clearly signposted – if heavily thicketed – route. It began with Krieger playing a huge gong, the metallic rumble meshing with the jagged strands of guitar Lou Reed was looping to produce a dense ball of sound. Krieger then switched to tenor sax, but tenor sax unlike anything I’ve ever heard – amplified and hideously distorted, creating savage feedback by dropping to his knees and jamming the bell into the monitor. You could have been listening to Wolf Eyes, everything was overloaded, it was impossible to tell who was responsible for which frequency nail-bomb. Behind them, Calhoun was animatedly slicing into this construction on his laptop, hair flailing as he swivelled to create crushed-concrete rhythms at Reed’s forceful request.

Another gestured instruction saw some amps turned off, and Krieger scampering to the back of the stage. The pulse of the feedback was replaced by the pounding of a huge kettledrum; suddenly the trio were a black-clad long haired doom metal band, howling riffs stretched to breaking point on a lattice of widely-spaced tribal beats, creating an intense and ritualistic counterpoint to the beginning of the show. Some people had their eyes closed, following their own trails through the music. Some thought the easiest path to follow would be the one to the exit, one departee even angrily tossing his empty cup on stage as he did so (did he really expect Reed to break off from this to do “Perfect Day”? Really? People as stupid as that deserved to be locked in a darkened room, forced to listen to deafening feedback for an hour, and have £45 stolen from their wallet. Oh). On the other hand, Reed looked like he was having the time of his life up there. He picked up one of the many guitars littering the stage and started tearing off feedback-strewn riffs; it was possible to imagine that this was perhaps the very instrument he played on The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”. He looked to the crowd and punched the air, and if you squinted a bit and, I dunno, maybe rubbed some vaseline into your eyes, Reed was transformed into a dynamic young musician again. He finished the show by giving his gong a bloody good thrashing, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had stripped to the waist to do so. It was that kind of evening. Just astonishing.

(the photos above were taken by Amy-Beth McNeely, many thanks for allowing me to use them)

3 thoughts on “ETHER FESTIVAL: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music Trio at the Royal Festival Hall, 19/04/10

  1. Fantastic, no compromise concert from one of rock’s greatest experimentalists. Loved every minute of it. Metal Machine forever.

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