After Dark: Tribute to Lou Reed

09:49 AM, Nov 21, 2013

Local musicians will pay tribute to rock icon Lou Reed. (TODD PLITT / USA Today)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Rochester musicians pay tribute to Lou Reed.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Skylark Lounge, 40 S. Union St.
Admission: Undetermined as of press time, but likely very nominal.

Lou Reed went to college at Syracuse University. Tom Whitmore also attended SU, and for a while lived in what had once been Reed’s dorm room. The very same room. As a bon vivant of the Rochester music scene, you have very likely seen the band that Whitmore plays in, Watkins & the Rapiers.

And there you have it. You are a mere Two Degrees of Separation from Lou Reed.

Reed, who was 71, passed away on Oct. 27 of complications following a liver transplant. He was certainly not everyone’s idea of a singer, considering that droning voice of his. But he was everything else that we expect from our best artists. And that’s why his life is being celebrated Friday at Skylark Lounge with one of those events that our fine local musicians do so well: a tribute show.

Watkins & the Rapiers will be there. Demonstrating the incestuous nature of the local scene, much of the rest of the lineup is a tangle of limbs and guitar strings. You’ve got The Chinchillas, doing classics such as “Pale Blue Eyes,” “White Light, White Heat” and “Heroin.” The Chinchillas are essentially the house band, backing Beth Brown (“Waiting For the Man”) Scott Weichman (“Rock and Roll”) and Gary Trainer, who’s also coming with his band, The Sin Walkers.

Four-fifths of The PressTones are in the house, SLT may show up, or maybe not. Nod will. And Stan Merrell and the Tempo Project, which is kind of The Dan Eaton Band, minus Dan Eaton, which is actually kind of Merrell’s old band, The Badenovs. The Tempo Project is also playing with Kim Draheim (“Vicious”).

And the show includes the sinuous lotus-eater jazz of Margaret Explosion, a perfect pick because the band never rehearses, it simply starts playing and counts on marvelous accidents to fall into place. Accidents like this one, in which Margaret Explosion is abetting: The really frightening aspect of Reed’s music is the vocals are so monotone in delivery that even the local rock critic can handle something like Reed’s “The Gift,” a bizarre short story from the Velvet Underground’s second album, White Light, White Heat.

And, in what’s a tradition at these events, all of the performers are called onstage at the end for ensemble treatments of “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane.” Expect more last-minute additions and decisions. Merrell is your host, he’ll sort it out for you.

The uncertainty and confidence that this will all coalesce into a fine show — a party, as organizer Peter Anvelt expects — is what rock and roll is all about, and what the Velvet Underground and Reed helped define. Remember, they emerged from the avant-garde scene surrounding Andy Warhol, a group of disciplined contrarians.

I saw Reed perform only one song, when he was backed by Soul Asylum on “Sweet Jane” for the 1995 concert that opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I got a more-thorough introduction to the man when he spoke at the South by Southwest music conference a few years ago. I’ve long since lost my notes on the talk, but I remember one comment in particular. Although he was deriding the poor quality of MP3 sound when he said this, I took it as a general statement on the arts: If you don’t demand a better music product, they’ll never give you one.

Reed was a fine writer, one of the few songwriters whose lyrics actually do work as poetry. And he was always challenging the status quo. Provoking. Cynical. Cynical like Whitmore, who writes songs about how he’s “taking a vacation from God.” There must have been something floating around in that dorm room.

Anvelt saw Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal Tour in the mid-’70s, and caught him again in Buffalo in the ’80s. “I’ve always been a fan of the Velvet Underground, the band has always covered a few of his songs, their songs,” says the lead singer of The Chinchillas. “I always looked up to him as an artist and as a lyricist. He was a big influence on my musical writing.”

Anvelt insists that can be heard in Chinchillas songs. “Maybe all of ‘em, especially the early ’80s stuff,” he says. “When we first started out it was more of that urban rock and roll type music, as opposed to now, where there’s more of a country thing to it.

It was the simplicity, and directness of his earlier works with the Velvet Underground, that’s what really sold me. Even in his solo career, he kept things simple. His writing was very direct and to the point. There wasn’t a lot of schmaltz to it.”

Perhaps. Urges don’t get any more primal than the guy who’s dreaming of driving The Chinchilla’s “Beer Truck.” It’s an oft-repeated statement, to the point of cliché, that the Velvet Underground was the most-influential band to never sell any albums. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is true; so many rock bands fell together around those monochromatic rhythms. The rootsy sound of today’s Chinchillas? Not so much. But the world-weary guy Reed’s singing about in “Heroin” and the exhausted fellow in The Chinchillas’ “Genesee Beer” are both looking for the same reward. Peace of mind.