Lou Reed at 9:30: No Shortage of Power, Only of Time

Lou Reed (in a 2005 photo) performed before a sold-out crowd.
Lou Reed (in a 2005 photo) performed before a sold-out crowd. (By Paulo Duarte -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lou Reed called his most famous live album "Rock n Roll Animal," but the title was kind of a joke even then, in 1974. The unofficial poet laureate of New York City is one of the least-pandering rockers ever, and his complete absorption in the music gives him a paradoxical charm: Like all icons of existential cool, he seems truly not to care whether you like him or not.

Take Tuesday night's powerful but maddeningly brief show at the 9:30 club. The majority of the mere dozen songs performed were mid-'80s-and-later album cuts, with only "Sweet Jane" (disposed of early in the set) and "Perfect Day" among Reed's "hits." He might have rolled his eyes introducing the Velvet Underground curio "I'm Sticking With You" ("This was in 'Juno,' that's why we're doing it") but you just never know with this guy. Reed's signature speak-singing, as distinct and authoritative as Johnny Cash's, sometimes seems to veil everything in a protective layer of sarcasm.

Increasingly as he's aged, Reed, 66, has used this vocal armor to get away with naked, frank introspection that would sound insufferably weak in anybody else's mouth. ("Naked" is not just a metaphor here -- few songwriters have addressed sex as Reed has, viscerally but with more revulsion than prurience.) It also makes Reed really funny, as in the well-chosen opener, "Mad." ("I know I shouldn't have had someone else in our bed, but I was so tired/Who would think you'd find a bobby pin?") The sold-out crowd followed Reed through his back pages without hesitation, though it was probably the incendiary chemistry of the band -- featuring lead guitarist Steve Hunter, recently reunited with Reed from the 1973 "Berlin" album -- on numbers like "Ecstasy" and "Video Violence" that brought them along.

"There's a bit of magic in everything," Reed sang in the apocalyptic main-set finale, "and then some loss to even things out." That sounds about right.

-- Chris Klimek

© 2008 The Washington Post Company