Light entertainment isn’t Lou Reed’s game. Don’t caricature him, though, as a mere curmudgeon. While the London stop of his latest European tour was one of his more upbeat appearances, the 69-year-old was man enough to stare mortality in the face. Half-wiseguy, half-sage, he shuffled on, his hands in a leather jacket, pot belly sagging. Conducting six musicians with jabs of his fingers, he exuded the spit-in-your-eye intensity of Junior Soprano fronting the E Street Band, his dodderiness defiant rather than forlorn.
They opened with “Who Loves the Sun”, a jaunty misanthrope’s charter from The Velvet Underground’s Loaded. Reed’s has always been a speaky delivery; now it’s a bruised croak with no pretensions about singing but plenty of narrative power when he remembers the words. Joyfully disreputable rhythm-and-blues followed in the form of “Senselessly Cruel” and “Temporary Thing”, as if the raddled janitor had hijacked a high-school prom.
With “Ecstasy”, title track of Reed’s 2000 album, the melancholy became overt, drawn-out and bone-dry. Next, an unashamedly creaky but moving cover of “Mother”, John Lennon’s filial howl, had one foot in the grave in the most profound way.
The trio of songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico, backed mostly by acoustic guitar and tambourine, advanced this undercurrent of aching, ageing loneliness. The doomy lope of “Venus in Furs” had seen all of life – and its diversions – before, yet Tony Diodore’s violin strained for more. “Femme Fatale” was recounted as world-weary cabaret, Reed’s voice rueful, grandmotherly. “Sunday Morning” was heartbreakingly frail at times, while “Waves of Fear”, from 2000, seemed to take on a new set of terrors.
The finale, an artfully scuzzy bop through “Sweet Jane”, summoned the crowd to mob the stage. “Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, Thunder,” Reed chanted, citing his drummer’s nickname but also suggesting that on this good night he wasn’t going gentle anywhere. So we didn’t get “Perfect Day”, “Satellite of Love” or even “Walk on the Wild Side”. No matter. “Old age should burn and rave,” the poet said. Burn on, Lou, rave on.