More than three decades after its original release, Lou Reed has finally made good on a long dormant plan to adapt his 1973 album Berlin for the concert stage. In December, 2006, Reed spent five nights performing the album's ten songs for an appreciative New York City audience. The event was filmed for a theatrical release, directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the DVD of that film, Berlin is now available. The results are decidedly mixed: great music, but flawed visual presentation.
Performing Berlin live was certainly a good idea. Along with 1992's Magic and Loss (a masterful song cycle about the death of two friends), Berlin is Reed's most cohesively structured lyrical narrative. The story is simple: two lovers marry and have children, though drugs, violence, and infidelity eventually ruin their lives. Musically, the album is a bit of an odd duck in the Lou Reed canon.
Loaded with musicians (including horns, a choir, and a ton of session players), it's considerably overproduced. Reed barely plays on the entire record, and the bombast threatens to overwhelm the project. I prefer the stripped down rock of Reed's latter era (especially from 1989's New York and beyond). The music, as presented in the concert film, is an interesting blend, adding substantial rock grit while maintaining the ambiance of the 1973 recording. Reed plays guitar, backed by his longtime rhythm section of Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums. These guys, along with guitarist Mike Rathke, have been touring together since 1996 and are as tight a rock combo as I've witnessed.
Though Rathke is absent, in his place is Steve Hunter. This provides a neat bit of historical continuity, as Hunter was the lead guitarist on the Berlin album (and toured with Reed in the '70s). The main quartet is supplemented by a wide array of musicians, including a horn section, strings, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and backing vocalists. Also present are Rupert Christie on keyboards and Rob Wasserman (Reed's bassist in the early '90s) on stand-up bass.
After a very brief introduction, Reed and company take the stage and perform the album's ten songs in about an hour. The arrangements are tight and Reed is focused in his intensity. As with his entire body of work, those unfamiliar to Reed's vocal style might have to adjust to his delivery. Throughout his forty-odd year career, Reed has defined - perhaps more than anyone in popular music - the "art" of non-singing. As his voice deepened and his range narrowed, Reed arrived at a half-speak/half-sing style not far removed from that of George Burns (albeit much darker).