Back in 1973, Lou Reed seemed to be well on his way to become a successful solo act after the final dissolution of the Velvet Underground, but no one, it seem was prepared for Berlin. RCA, the label that had released Reed's previous album, Transformer, was hoping for another Top-20 hit along the lines of "Walk on the Wild Side," but instead got a tawdry, downbeat concept album about a bruised and doomed German prostitute name Caroline and her junkie lover. Hit single? The most straightforward "rock song" on the album -- "How Do You Think It Feels" -- was a none-too-subtle ode to amphetamine use, and the rest of the record dealt frankly with violence, sexual sadism and suicide. Fans were put off and many critics were downright cruel: One bluntly included it among those records "so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them." Even Lester Bangs, Creem's iconoclastic critic and Reed's long-time champion, called it "a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made." Thirty-five years later, few would dispute that Berlin is the greatest achievement of Reed's immediate post-Velvets years -- even fewer would admit to not liking the first time around -- and it certainly ranks high among his best solo albums. Although he had never performed the album live, in 2006 Reed agreed to present the Berlin in concert and in its entirety at Brooklyn's St. Anne's Warehouse, and have the whole thing filmed by artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who also designed the Chinese-panels-with-dangling couch set. (Schnabel's daughter, Lola Schnabel, provided the projected film footage telling the story of Caroline, played by Emmanuel Seigner). Looking fit at the age 65 and in top form, Reed is joined on guitar by the remarkable Steve Hunter -- the rock-and-roll animal who performed on the original studio album -- and supported by bass, drums, keyboards, a small string ensemble, a horn section, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Sharon Jones and Antony on backing vocals. Reed tears into the material, from the Walk-on-the-Weill-Side stomp of "Lady Day," a powerful "Men of Good Fortune" and the Velvets' rewrite "Oh, Jim" to the film most unexpectedly moving moment -- not, as one might think, "The Kids," in which Caroline loses her children to the sounds of kids crying out for their mother (courtesy the fresh faced of the Youth Choir), but "Caroline Says II" which a damp-eyed Reed seems to sing for every fallen superstar and friend he's lost along his way. It's an amazing performance that's topped only by Reed's duet with Antony on the VU's "Candy Says," one of three non-Berlin encores ("Rock Minuet" from 2000's Ecstasy and the obligatory and relatively uplifting "Sweet Jane" are the other two). Never an easy one to impress, Reed is clearly in awe of Antony's ethereal voice, and it must now stand as the definitive version of a 40 year old song.
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- Released: 2008
- Rating: NR
- Review: Back in 1973, Lou Reed seemed to be well on his way to become a successful solo act after the final dissolution of the Velvet Underground, but no one, it seem was prepared for Berlin. RCA, the label that had released Reed's previous album, Transformer, was… (more)