- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Lou Reed has no casual fans. It might not even be accurate to say that he has fans. The gender-erasing poet-rocker has initiates, specially sensitized people who “get it” — “it” being a druggy, droning atmosphere of noise, punctuated by a croaky voice that delivers abstruse lyrics in the stilted, spoken-word cadence of William Shatner.

Heady enthusiasts will say Mr. Reed invented glam-rock and, with the Velvet Underground, created the attitudinal template of punk rock.

Extraordinarily heady enthusiasts will tell you his music helped inspire the Velvet Revolution that crumbled the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia.

Actually, Vaclav Havel said that. He just finished serving 13 years as president of the Czech Republic.

Mr. Reed, touring behind one of his most audacious, not to say pretentious, projects yet — “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe’s verse set to music — played at Wolf Trap on Wednesday night, and many initiates must have stayed home.

The venue was maybe half full, and a few of those who did brave the chilly rain arrived after the early 8 p.m. start time.

A leather-clad Mr. Reed banged away the classic “Sweet Jane” chord progression for a good five-minutes, killing time as he welcomed latecomers filing into their seats.

“This is the perfect music to take your seat by,” Mr. Reed deadpanned.

“We can do it slower,” he says, dropping “Jane” into half-time rhythm.

“Here’s the punker-teenage version” — double-time.

“Now, I’m gonna show you why there’s only one me,” he said, right before sneaking in the “sexy” lone minor chord in “Sweet Jane.”

There truly is only one Lou Reed.

Here’s a guy with a so-so, mostly shattered voice who plays guitar little better than your average bedroom amateur.

Yet he’s one of the most influential songwriters in rock history.

Bob Dylan may have made rock lyrics safe for the literary intellect, but Mr. Reed made them safe for the deranged intellect, incorporating disturbing images of drug abuse and dark homosexual underworlds.

Take the Velvet Underground song, “Venus in Furs,” one of the most jarring moments of the evening.

“Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/ whiplash girl-child in the dark … taste the whip, in love not given lightly,” Mr. Reed sang, with Jane Scarpantoni (who plays on “The Raven”) discordantly raking her cello.

Other times, Mr. Reed wasn’t so abstract, as on “The Last Shot”: “I shot a vein in my neck and coughed up a quaalude.”

Mr. Reed, at 61 craggy years old, is no retro throwback, though.

He’s accompanied these days by an eccentric, high-tech-equipped bunch of musicians, including guitarist Michael Rathke, who spent as much time twiddling with an electronic console and something called a zeetar as he did on his six-string, which often was processed to mimic piano tones.

Bassist Fernando Saunders occasionally put down his ax to play an electronic drum-kit, which doesn’t sound nearly as good as the real thing.

The strangest member of Mr. Reed’s band, however, was a singer known only by his first name, Anthony. Discovered by “Raven” producer Hal Willner, Anthony spent most of Wednesday night in a chair, and he squirmed incessantly like a little kid waiting to go to the bathroom on a long car trip.

Anthony’s voice is a weird sort of lispy tenor that’s supposed to sound haunting but actually sounds grating. He sang lead on the Velvet classic “Candy Says,” eliciting applause from Mr. Reed and perplexed shrugs from the audience.

Stalwart fans yelled for Mr. Reed to play more from the Velvet Underground catalog — “Rock and Roll,” “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man” — to no avail.

And there was no “Walk on the Wild Side” — a quiet, jazzy shuffle about a transvestite and probably Mr. Reed’s best-known song.

With the exception of the “Sweet Jane” opener and an upbeat “Dirty Boulevard,” Mr. Reed clearly wanted to keep things quietly highbrow Wednesday night.

His biggest success was the title track to “The Raven,” during which Mr. Reed received a little help from nature. As he read (from a flat-screen teleprompter next to his stage monitors) Poe’s trippy poem about a tormenting bird, it started pouring rain.

It was as if Mr. Reed summoned the heavens himself.

But only an initiate would think Mr. Reed has that kind of power.

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