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Lou Reed tribute falls short of expectations

Peter Blackstock

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 15, 2014

It seemed like such a good idea, this SXSW tribute to the late and legendary Lou Reed at the Paramount Theatre assembled by his New York friend Richard Barone and Austin’s own Alejandro Escovedo. While not big-name star-studded – no Gagas, Kanyes or Pitbulls here – the lineup was full of quality names both greater and lesser known, including Suzanne Vega, Lucinda Williams, the Black Lips, Garland Jeffreys and Chuck Prophet.

On the event’s Facebook page Thursday night, Barone even raised expectations, writing: “I can’t begin to tell you how amazing the last two days of rehearsals for the Lou Reed Tribute have been. Each artist and every musician has completely blown me away with their performances.” And when Barone and Escovedo took the stage just past 7:30 p.m. to blast through “Sweet Jane” with a superb house band including the renowned New York guitarist Lenny Kaye, Blondie drummer Clem Burke, and Austin-centric string team Suzan Voelz and Brian Standefer, it seemed we were in for a great evening.

What followed, though, made it seem like the rehearsals had been more like two hours than two days. With more than two dozen songs to get through, the program badly needed strident pacing, but the hosts seemed intent on providing precisely the opposite, dragging out what probably could have been a tightly packed two-and-a-half-hour show for at least an hour longer than it should have run.

Not that there weren’t inspiring moments. Bobby Bare Jr. provided an early highlight with “Oh Sweet Nothing,” driving the band into a dramatic crescendo on a song that had closed out Reed’s tenure with the Velvet Underground decades ago. Chuck Prophet fully embodied the spirit of the Reed song he performed, “Rock and Roll Heart.” Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 rode waves of dynamic ups and downs beautifully throughout the cinematic “Coney Island Baby.” And the inclusion of old-school Austin band the Bizarros, which had featured Lou’s late bandmate Sterling Morrison, was a nice sentimental touch.

But for every triumph, there was a corresponding failure. Escovedo at least telegraphed his, declaring that “we’re here to f—- up this song” as his latest side-project band, the Fauntleroys, made a complete trainwreck of “Waves of Fear.” At least they weren’t offensive, like drag queen Sharon Needles, who cracked jokes about wearing animal furs before a dull reading of “Candy Says.” Louise Goffin did little to lift Reed’s brilliant “Perfect Day” beyond ordinary; compared to the revelatory instrumental version Steve Bernal rendered a few weeks ago at an all-Austin Reed tribute show at the Cactus Cafe, her take was lifeless.

Many times the program was stretched out unnecessarily, with protracted delays of gear changeover or, in the case of Wayne Kramer, actually waiting several minutes for the performer to show up onstage. This would be unprofessional but forgivable on an ordinary night, but during SXSW, time is precious, and they wasted way too much of the audience’s time.

Three hours in, my wife and I decided we’d had enough. We would have loved to hear Spandau Ballet’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and there were rumors (which proved true) of a surprise Sean Lennon appearance; but by then we were a few blocks away, watching a terrific set by Norwegian country-pop singer Kurt Nilsen at Rowdys Saloon. Nilsen played for 40 minutes and made every single one of them count. It would have been nice if the Lou Reed Tribute had done the same.