Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio; Wanda Jackson | Rock review

Royal Festival Hall, London; Luminaire, London

The Metal Machine Trio begin playing well before any musicians reach the stage. A steady drone of feedback grows subtly louder as the auditorium fills up. Among the faithful are Bobby Gillespie, long ago of the Jesus and Mary Chain, a band with a noted penchant for feedback, and Kevin Shields, whose My Bloody Valentine sculpted noise-forms so harrowing that one of their songs boasts a passage known as "The Holocaust section".

Even rock bands less attitudinal than the Mary Chain and MBV like to leave guitars propped up against amps at a gig's close to produce a howl of noise in their wake. Lou Reed, the godfather of all attitudinal rock, starts his Metal Machine Trio gig from this endpoint: a clutch of guitars leaning against a wall of amplifiers, already fulfilling the event's billing as "an evening of deep noise".

When he eventually emerges, Reed looks just like the wizened hipster he is, in a leather jacket and jeans; a shaggy roadie is on hand to do his bidding. Two pony-tailed men resembling chemistry postgrads accompany him – Ulrich Krieger, avant-garde composer and saxophonist, and Sarth Calhoun, a sound wizard who mans a bank of gear and mixes the night's improvisational output live.

The Metal Machine Trio don't reproduce Reed's Metal Machine Music album of 1975, but pay tribute to it in great waves of organic atonality that uninterested passers-by might not recognise as actual music. It is the flipside of Reed's "Perfect Day" – a wild and restless sonic night.

MGMT's wilful second album Congratulations provoked much talk about the band's career suicide recently. But that mildly psychedelic detour pales in comparison to Metal Machine Music, a true rock lemming. MMM eschewed the melodies of Reed's burgeoning solo career for four sides of undulating drones. It sounded like a pressing plant malfunction; scores of fans returned the record. Reed's notorious disdain for journalists was ingrained in this era, when critics panned it.

The myth that has grown around MMM dictates that it was a contract-fulfilling two-fingers directed at Reed's record company and a giant raspberry to his mainstream fans, but Reed's musical apprenticeship before and during the Velvet Underground included exposure to avant-garde composer La Monte Young, the high priest of minimalist atonality. There was method in Reed's bloody-mindedness.

When Krieger transcribed every hum and skronk of Metal Machine Music into musical notation eight years ago, noted curmudgeon Reed was tickled pink and MM3 has grown out of that project. Tonight's sonic bloodletting is not as loud as you might have hoped, but MM3's output is often more elegant and stirring than foreseen. The din has tides; at one point, the frail Reed swaps guitar for a giant drum. Occasionally, the uterine apocalypse ebbs, leaving more delicate motifs exposed. From somewhere, Sarth synthesises a plangent, oscillating violin-like sigh.

This Festival Hall performance introduces at least one new element not yet heard on MM3 outings: a giant gong, which everyone onstage has a go on, with ill-disguised delight. Plugged into a series of effects pedals, Krieger's saxophone starts off sounding nothing like the instrument with which many of us would like to throttle buskers. He swings it around a monitor so that it feeds back too. But later, these guttural textures become more recognisable as a sax solo, and his excellent work is undone as he pulls one too many masturbatory faces.

Despite these setbacks, MM3's performance is very often exhilarating. Most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Lou Reed, one of popular music's most trenchant egomaniacs, has embraced improvised music. This works best if the anarchy of battling soloists is subsumed into a kind of consensual flow. Although Reed remains in charge, the Metal Machine Trio fly free, following each other's leads. Perhaps the 68-year-old has mellowed with age.

Just four years older than Reed, Wanda Jackson belongs to an era that seems light years away: the 1950s. Known as the queen of rockabilly, Jackson was a sassy, guitar-toting female presence at the birth of rock'n'roll. In the late 50s, she toured with Jerry Lee Lewis and dated another tour-mate, Elvis Presley. "I wore his ring on a chain around my neck," she reveals warmly, adding that her daddy always chaperoned. It's an anecdote she's probably told several thousand times in six decades, but the quiffed and primped crowd still wriggles with pleasure.

Jackson's hellcat delivery does not have the youthful force it once did, but she performs the first of two sold-out nights at London's Kilburn Luminaire with enormous verve, swinging her female-designed Daisy Rock acoustic guitar around. She vamps through rock'n'roll classics with humour and dignity, enlisting the band and, occasionally, the guest vocals of Irish rockabilly frontwoman Imelda May, as on a terrific two-headed rendition of her "Hard-Headed Woman".

Jackson never had the hits that her friend Dolly Parton did, but her cult following has remained constant. Once championed by the Cramps, Jackson's most recent advocate is Jack White, with whom she has recorded an album of cover versions, due out late this year. She recently released a taster single on seven-inch vinyl, a cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm no Good" with subtle lyrical tweaks to spare Jackson's blushes. It is shiver-inducing tonight, due in part to the song's sordid truthfulness, but also to the weight of female authority Jackson brings to it.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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