When newlywed Lou Reed took the stage for the Highline Ballroom’s first birthday party in a loose leather shirt that looked less leathery than his 66-year old face, the songwriter spread his arms. It wasn’t quite a triumphant acknowledgement, it wasn’t quite a greeting to a hometown crowd after a two week tour with his veteran band, and it wasn’t quite an elderly Jewish man shrugging an oy at some cosmic twist of fate. Nor was Reed quite smiling. But it wasn’t unlike any of those gestures, either. Despite, or perhaps because of, his recent nuptials with Laurie Anderson, Reed began with 2000’s “Mad,” a relationship at is tail end. “I hate your silent breathing in the night,” he spoke-sang.
It wasn’t until much later—the new song, “Power of the Heart”—that Reed explicitly acknowledged his bride. Sleepy and sappy, “Heart” was nonetheless sincere, in Reed’s particular, occasionally Hallmarky way. “I think I’m dumb, I know you’re smart, the beating of a pure bred heart,” Reed sang. “I say this to you and it’s not a lark: marry me today.” “And she said ‘yes,'” Reed smiled afterwards. “At last I can tell you,” and the crowd cheered for Anderson, presumably nestled in a VIP nook amid the proverbial celebs.
One of the evening’s four Velvets-era tunes was “Sweet Jane,” Reed speak-singing “Those were different ti-yi-yi-imes,” later delivering “wine and roses” bridge over the same chords as the verse, cutting the dramatic modulation. Though Reed’s band—two guitars (plus Lou), keyboards, laptop dude, drums, bass—was occasionally faceless, they were a leathery kind of faceless, clearly gelling around their boss. (No Moby.) But it was the set-long appearance by saxophonist John Zorn that allowed all to hit their strides. More specifically, Zorn gave them an edge lacking in Rob Wasserman’s upright electric bass, Kevin Hearn’s string/horn patches, Sarth Calhoun’s invisible Macbookery, and guitarist Steve Hunter’s fiery if decidedly inside-the-box solos. Zorn’s appearance continued a collaboration with Reed that began at the Knitting Factory’s 20th anniversary celebration last spring, and recently includes a benefit CD with Anderson for Zorn’s tiny Avenue C club, The Stone.
Appearing first for a 15-minute “Ecstasy,” and occasionally sitting out numbers on the drum riser, Zorn was dressed in his usual urban camo army pants, tallit katan poking from his shirt. Though the downtown lion was occasionally reduced to Clarence Clemons-like tooting over the changes, the band cleared room for him when they could. On “Ecstasy,” guitarists Hunter and Mike Rathke more or less gave up, palm-muting along with Tony Smith’s handdrum. Zorn went out, and nobody stepped to join him in the squall until, semi-surprisingly, Reed himself stomped on a pedal and screamed along. On “I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum),” from Reed’s mostly dubious, occasionally brilliant Edgar Allen Poe tribute, The Raven, Zorn went into full flight, exploding the song’s narrative into total “Murder Mystery”-like density. Nodding to Juno amid the seriously tucked-in and Loooooooooooouing crowd, Reed dusted off the Loaded outtake “I’m Sticking With You,” keyboardist Kevin Hearn an insubstantial understudy for drummer Moe Tucker until Reed joined for the reprise.
Though “Halloween Parade,” a still-elegiac tribute to the Village’s AIDS victims, did well in channeling the old, weird New York of Reed’s past, it was the encore-closing “Walk on the Wild Side” that made one yearn for it even more. With Wasserman’s fretless bass and nary a tranny in sight, not even Zorn could transcend the pleasant confines and clear sightlines of the Highline Ballroom. Though the Highline is one of the nicer additions to the city’s club scene, it was hard not to taste the world that preceded the $85 tickets and the glittering Apple Store and packed-meat nightspots down the block. But the song remained out of Reed’s grasp, the most elusive and literal type of nostalgia.
At the end of the night, surrounded by his band, Reed again spread his arms. If his message wasn’t more clear than when he arrived, it was at least a little friendlier, knowing he’d soon get to sleep in his own bed, his wife at his side. “I’ll see you all tomorrow outside,” the New Yorker said, and sent his townsmen into the spring night.
Lou Reed at the Highline one year ago