No one would have thought it possible, but through some kind of weird stroke of
fate, the Velvet Underground reformed briefly back in 1993 and played a handful
of live shows. These shows were documented as “Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII” and
released as a two-disc set, a truncated one-disc set, and as a VHS entity. And
now here it is, making its debut on DVD, in the shortened form. However, the
idea that the VU reformed 13 years ago comes off as more important than the
shows they played themselves. Anyone expecting the old dynamic was going to be
disappointed. You can’t go back.
When John Cale was ousted from the Velvet Underground in 1968, and Doug Yule
came in to play on the band’s last two albums, some fans scoffed and claimed
that the group was now nothing but Lou Reed’s backing band. But this is hardly
the case. The songs Yule sang on the group’s third album and Loaded might
have been penned by Reed, but you can’t hear “Candy Says,” “Who Loves the Sun?”
or “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” and not tie them to Yule just as well. It was just a
different band, but one no less influential or revolutionary (one listen to
“What Goes On” or “Rock and Roll” will certainly back this up). But when the
Velvets reformed in the early ‘90s, Yule was not asked to come along. It’s a
shame, because he was as much part of the band as Cale was, but this outing was
one for the purists.
However, if the VU ever indeed became “just Lou Reed’s backing band,” it’s on
“Velvet Redux”. And by most accounts, Reed was a complete prick to his old
bandmates once the tour started going. Think not of these tunes as the
once-fantastic VU versions, but as the versions Lou remade when he went solo.
Who would have ever thought that “Sweet Jane” could suck, or what “White
Light/White Heat” would lose all of its former glory with Cale and Sterling
Morrison attacking it? But that’s how it is here. Clean versions led by a clean
Reed, with the band in tow, bowing to his whims.
But then, I suppose you couldn’t expect “Venus in Furs” to ever sound as bracing
as it does on The Velvet Underground and Nico. And you couldn’t expect
“Some Kinda Love” to ever be as kinky and sexy as it was on The Velvet
Underground. And no one should ever be expected to enjoy “Hey Mr. Rain” in
any version, as it was just a lousy song to begin with, and rightly tossed in
the closet until it was featured on Another View in two lousy versions in
1985. And why the band couldn’t come up with anything better than the flimsy
“Coyote” as a new track is beyond me. But again, this was only the Velvet
Underground on the surface.
Still, the fact that it happened at all must be worth something. And even though
it’s basically Lou’s show all the way, there’s something still electric about
seeing Maureen Tucker pound the drums in a tribal manner and Sterling Morrison
working his guitar in all the ways that Lou Reed couldn’t. And watching the
group blast out “Heroin” one more time is still cool in a way (but there’s no
justification in letting Cale handle the lead vocals on “I’m Waiting for the
Man” which he manages to mangle). Yet one can’t help but feel that the VU
treasure that has been unearthed since this all came to pass, such as the
previously unreleased tracks on the box set, and the first volume of The
Bootleg Series, are far more exciting in both historical value and
performance than “Velvet Redux” could have ever been.
Fans looking for any bonuses on the DVD are going to be disappointed. This is
basically the old VHS version of the show, reissued on DVD. So you get the
concert in its entirety, a song selection list, and that’s it. It would have
been nicer to have had a little something extra to go with this show, such as a
look back at the band or anything like that, but this is about as bare bones as
it gets. Fans are much better off seeking out the various books, other official
live documents already released, or a search on ebay for other archival
materials related to the VU. “Velvet Redux” is a flimsy epitaph for a band that
deserves much more.