The 'Gurge do the Velvets, but the old stuff is better than the new stuff

Regurgitator, Seja and Mindy Meng Wang play
the Velvet Underground & Nico,
Melbourne Recital Centre
Friday June 29
★★★
There were moments during this live regurgitation of the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico (the one with the banana) when you could almost imagine yourself in the crowd for one of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media shows, staged around the US from the year before the LP’s release.

Ken Weston's visuals play a major role in Regurgitator's live interpretation of The Velvet Underground's debut album.

Ken Weston’s visuals play a major role in Regurgitator’s live interpretation of The Velvet Underground’s debut album.

That owed as much to the brilliant and mesmerising visuals of Ken Weston, which played on half a dozen long drop screens behind the band, as it did to the wall of sound produced by the musicians themselves. At those moments, it was only the fact we were sitting in the finely wrought surrounds of the Melbourne Recital Centre rather than standing in a warehouse on the lower east side, or slumped in bean bags (or, perhaps, smacked-out in the toilet), that shattered the illusion.

That’s not to say this was mere pastiche. The three-piece Regurgitator – Quan Yeomans on guitar and occasional vocals, Ben Ely on lead vocals and bass, and Martin Lee on drums, augmented by Seja Vogel on keyboards and vocals and Mindy Meng Wang on guzheng – played the album in sequential order,  but they did so far from slavishly. But only rarely did their shifts, additions and elisions shed new light on one of the most influential albums in rock history.

That’s  perhaps too harsh, so let’s admit that the show was fun. But its greatest achievement was to remind us of just how good The Velvet Underground & Nico really is.

The show opened with Sunday Morning, with Seja doubling for Nico and doing a perfectly good job; her vocals were, in fact, a high point throughout.  On I’m Waiting for the Man, Yeomans took the mic, but the subtle variations in the Velvets’ recording gave way to a relentless one-note freight train of noise.

The Andy Warhol-designed cover of the 1967 album.

The Andy Warhol-designed cover of the 1967 album.

The meshing with the visuals was at its best here, the effect vaguely hallucinogenic (the morphing of Yeomans’ face with oil-lamp splodges was reminiscent of Alex Garland’s recent sci-fi film Annihilation), but sonically it was oddly unsatisfying.

Ely did vocal duties on a number of songs, a result presumably of this show – first performed in 2016 for the NGV’s Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei exhibition – being his baby. But he rendered everything with the flat relentlessness of power rock; the art was sadly missing.

Perhaps the boldest move was the decision to replace John Cale’s viola with Mindy Meng Wang’s guzheng. As an idea it’s to be applauded; in execution, though, it didn’t quite work, the plink-plink contributions of this Chinese zither-like instrument being a poor substitute for the unbroken drone of the viola. It left the songs sounding slightly undernourished.

A hard act to follow: The Velvet Underground were (l-r) Sterling Morrison, Maureen 'Mo' Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale.

A hard act to follow: The Velvet Underground were (l-r) Sterling Morrison, Maureen ‘Mo’ Tucker, Lou Reed and John Cale.

It’s a strange proposition, this business of promising to play an album live in its entirety. It suggests fidelity and almost militates against interpretation. Of course, when the players are not the original band it’s a slightly different matter. Go ahead, give it your best shot.

Regurgitator no doubt did that. But when it comes to the still-astonishing Velvet Underground & Nico, I have to say I like the old stuff better than the new stuff.

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