Blu-ray Review: Lou Reed - Classic Albums: Transformer & Live at Montreux 2000

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For a great Lou Reed double feature, one that shines a spotlight on an early milestone as well as a late-career peak, try Eagle Rock Entertainment’s Transformer & Live at Montreux 2000. In light of Reed’s passing in October 2013, the timing is appropriate for such a retrospective. These titles have been available individually on standard DVD, but this is the first time they’ve been upscaled to 1080i and lossless audio. It’s a bargain, even for those who already own one or both of the old DVD editions.

First up is the knockout installment of the long-running Classic Albums series dedicated to Transformer. The 80-minute program was first issued in 2001 and includes a plethora of then-new reflections from Reed himself, as well as engineer Ken Scott, session bassist Herbie Flowers, Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke, and more. Sadly we hear nothing from producer David Bowie. There are, however, a few archival clips from the late Mick Ronson, who co-produced with Bowie. Structurally the doc is similar to other Classic Albums pieces, tracing the origins of the record (dating back to Reed’s association with Andy Warhol during the Velvet Underground days), its recording, and the critically and commercially successful reception it received.

Much is made throughout about how Transformer was the “real” solo debut of Reed, following the poorly-received self-titled set from the year before (made up mostly of blandly performed re-workings of unused Velvet Underground recordings). While it’s arguably the most immediately accessible album in Reed’s discography, Transformer remains more of an anomaly rather than a definitive statement. With Bowie and Ronson behind the board, Reed wound up with something approaching a pop album. Some of the doc’s best moments involve engineer Scott isolating various tracks, including Bowie’s extraordinary backing vocals on tunes like “Satellite of Love” and “New York Telephone Conversation.” Flowers demonstrates how he created the dual bass line for “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Certainly not the least of Classic Albums: Transformer’s pleasures are Reed’s own solo demonstrations of various songs, played on acoustic guitar. We also hear from the surviving real-life “characters” described in “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as a discussion of that song’s impact as Reed’s sole top 40 radio hit. Carried over from the original DVD is a full 30 minutes of additional material, all of which is essential for going deeper into this glam rock landmark.

Jumping ahead nearly 30 years, Live at Montreux 2000 finds Reed in blistering form, backed by his late-career regulars: Mike Rathke (guitar), Fernando Saunders (bass), and Tony “Thunder” Smith (drums). Reed was touring in support of what wound up being his final non-collaborative collection of new songs, Ecstasy. Much of the set list is devoted to that album, including the title track, “Paranoia Key of E,” “Modern Dance,” and (best of all) “Rock Minuet.” The 16-song set avoids the Velvet Underground oeuvre entirely, focusing almost entirely on Reed’s most recent work. There are a few tunes from 1989’s New York (including a transfixing “Dime Store Mystery”) and the show-stopping title tune from 1996’s Set the Twilight Reeling. The final encore is the only real blast from the past—an enthusiastically received rendition of Transformer’s “Perfect Day.”

Both programs look fine, though as part of Eagle Rock’s “SD Blu-ray” reissue series, no claims are made that these will rival native 1080p productions. The real reason to upgrade is the audio. Classic Albums: Transformer is offered in LPCM 2.0 stereo and it sounds great. Even better is Live at Montreux 2000, which boasts DTS-HD MA 5.1 in addition to LPCM stereo. The surround mix is an untimed, wild affair that really allows for a true appreciation of Reed’s band. Plenty of LFE activity keeps things thumping. It’s a raucous live mix that clearly betters the standard DVD edition.

Liner notes from the original Live at Montreux 2000 DVD are reprinted in the Blu-ray booklet. The concert itself runs just over two hours, bringing the disc’s total running time (including extras) to well over three and a half hours.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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