Classic Rock Review

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The Velvet Underground Live at Max’s Kansas City (1972)


You almost wouldn’t know it talking to Velvet Underground fans these days, but Live at Max’s Kansas City was the very first live album released by these guys in 1972. However, it’s easily one of their least-loved releases, second to Squeeze.

Why? Because the recording quality is atrocious. It was recorded by someone sitting in an audience with a handheld recorder, and not a terribly high-tech one at that. Because of that, it sounds like the band is verrrrry far away. Furthermore, from my experience using handheld tape-recorders, I’m willing to bet that this person was recording over something else. Every once in awhile, I hear it sort of spaz out, getting a bit distorted. That tape seemed well-worn.

I said multiple times before that The Velvet Underground don’t necessarily sound bad when the recording quality is crude… but here, it’s a huge distraction. Lou Reed’s vocals are frequently drowned out by the other instruments. That includes even, on more than one occasion, quite clearly hearing people’s conversations. (I’m mildly amused that I can hear one guy talk about how he saw Patton recently.

…At another time, apparently you can hear author Jim Carroll asking about where to find drugs. However, I haven’t been able to pick up exactly where that happens.) It sounds like it was recorded at a very small venue, and I’d imagine many people in the audience were just there for the drinks. At the end of “Lonesome Cowboy Bill (Version 1),” I hear one person clapping. Haha!

Even worse than that, the band itself was not in top form. The Velvet Underground had a very high live reputation, but you would never guess that here. The principle problem is that Maureen Tucker was not present at this recording; she was havin’ a baby! (I guess that’s what happens to females of our species sometimes…) Instead, bassist Doug Yule recruited his brother Billy to play the drums, and he—for the lack of a better term—sucks. That’s mostly due to these clunky fills he likes inserting in pretty much all these songs. Furthermore, since the recording quality is so awful, his drumming is easily the loudest thing in the mix. It comes off way louder than Reed’s voice. If the quality of these songs weren’t so high, then I would have completely given up on this; the drumming would’ve driven me completely crazy instead of just mildly crazy.

Yet another problem with this album came with the CD re-release of it. The original vinyl release was severely edited. Here, they pretty much include EVERYTHING including the silence in between songs. I suppose you could argue that doing that sort of recreates the feeling that you’re there, but … er … I was mostly just bored by it. Sometimes you can hear Lou Reed talk to the audience, but I usually have a hard time making out what he says. When I can, there aren’t exactly any laugh-out-loud moments. However, I’m amused at the beginning where Reed informs the audience in his signature deadpan manner: “You’re allowed to dance in case you didn’t know.” …Given how I hear the audience’s lukewarm reception to the band throughout the performances, I don’t think anybody there took him up on that offer.

The song selection is generally good. My obligatory pick for best song is “White Light / White Heat,” which is unfortunately marred by Billy Yule’s drumming. (At the end of that song, I can quietly hear Reed telling Yule how to play the next song. …Well, it sounds like he was at least polite.) They also perform a number of songs that I never cared for even in their polished studio forms, such as “New Age” and “I’m Set Free,” which are verrrrrrrrrrry tiring for me to sit through. I’m also not sure why, but there are two versions each of “Sweet Jane” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.” In both those occasions, once was enough.

With all this in mind, I have no trouble calling Live at Max’s Kansas City a strictly for-fans-only release. And the vast majority of fans I’m aware of don’t think much of it. The Velvet Underground were a great live band, but this recording didn’t show them in top-form. It was also recorded at a time just previously to Lou Reed exiting the band, and he does seem awfully worn out. Really, it’s no wonder whatsoever that the 1974 release of 1969: The Velvet Underground Live greatly eclipses this release in popularity. Not only does that album have much better sound quality (as crude as it is), but it shows the band in tip-top form. I mean, some of the songs on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live are even better than the studio versions, in my opinion. So, skip this one, and get that one!

December 28, 2013 Posted by | The Velvet Underground Live at Max's Kansas City | | Leave a comment