A tribute to the Velvets

By: Winston Watusi

Winston Watusi
Music Plus

Are we still between gigs? Yeah, pretty much, so we'll go elsewhere this week.

Sure, there is stuff happening. Jack Dusty’s, the Barrel Room and the Hop House are continuing with seated music, but most stuff is still stuffed.

Baycourt is really having no fun at all, what with the shifting sands of regulations. Currently the 100-person limit is off but distancing remains:

“To maximise audience numbers, Baycourt has modified our seating layout in the Addison Theatre to safely allow for one metre physical distancing between audience members. To accommodate this much-needed lift in available seats, tickets must now be purchased in groups of two, three, four or five so that we can maximise our seated capacity based on the layout of our specific venue. Please note that this configuration only applies under the current alert level two guidelines.”

That’s the kicker. The “current” guidelines. They will change soon. That’s the way it is at the moment. The situation is febrile.

But there is still optimism. Musicians are pressing ahead with musical plans. Amanda Sloan will be launching an album on December 4 at the Mount Community Hall, with her dance students dancing to live music.

She says it will go ahead in either level two or level one. The previous night, Davey Beige has assembled a crack band for a crack at the Jam Factory. I’m guessing level one only, though enterprising folk have started holding Jam Factory shows outside on the lawn recently...

Hal again

But I said we were going elsewhere this week and indeed we are, because we’re going to once again visit the wonderful world of the late Hal Willner.

I wrote about Hal Willner a couple of months back, since the producer, who died last year from Covid complications, had once again blown everyone away, this time with his take on the music of Mark Bolan and T. Rex and a double CD called Angel-Headed Hipster.

But even that posthumous set was not his final work. It has now emerged. A “tribute” album recreating The Velvet Undergound and Nico's classic self-titled debut album, the one with the Andy Warhol-designed cover of a banana.

That album is now 54 years old and has reverberated through the music scene since then - a debut as influential as the arrival of a young Bob Dylan five years earlier. The Velvets were a slow motion explosion that expand ever-outward, changing everything in its path. It got here eventually of course. Does anyone think the “Dunedin sound” could have happened otherwise?

It’s not as if their place in music history has been ignored. Even the band’s fourth and final album, Loaded, from after they disbanded, has been re-released as a six-CD box.

Debut again

And here we have their debut again, made over in loving homage by Hal Willner and his chosen team. It is simply brilliant. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe opens with a gloriously languid take on Sunday Morning, all intimate breathy vocals with subtle weirdness from Bill Frisell’s guitar.

Matt Berninger from The National follows with I’m Waiting For My Man and nails it. What always distinguished the Velvets was the grown-up honesty of Lou Reed’s early songwriting and here, with a forensic description of a drug deal and the accompanying mental state, you get it in its full glory.

The album returns to that theme with Heroin, musically arranged by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and sung by Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream. In these sanitised musical times, both songs still have the power to shock.

Elsewhere, Sharon Van Etten turns in a lovely (and possibly the slowest ever) version of Femme Fatale, while violinist Andrew Bird and indie-pop band Lucius get stuck into the sado-masochism anthem Venus In Furs with an attack of screechy sharp stringed instruments, and Courtney Barnett makes I’ll Be Your Mirror sound like nothing other than a Courtney Barnett song.

Closing things off, Iggy Pop unites with Matt Sweeney for European Son and shows he has lost nothing by way of bone-crunching aggression. The song hits peak weirdness after about three minutes but then continues to assault the brain for another five. It’s a fitting finish for a superb album.