Considering SXSW is ostensibly the place for up-and-coming artists to break into mainstream consciousness, it's only fitting that the fest paid tribute to Lou Reed—the man responsible for creating underground rock—at SXSW 2014.
While his widow Laurie Anderson gave the evening her blessing, she declined to participate. Instead, Reed's friends and fellow cult favorites Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Barone brought together an eclectic, impressive assortment of beloved artists, early punk pioneers and even RuPaul's Drag Race winner Sharon Needles to perform Reed's catalog. Equally cool: Blondie's drummer Clem Burke and Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye served as the backing band most of the night.
Considering Reed's pivotal time with the Velvet Underground to his risk-taking solo career, it's hard to think of an artist whose work continues to be as fresh, relevant and polarizing five decades later. It's also a tribute to Reed's stunning talent that he continues to be universally admired even if he's not personally beloved. While Garland Jeffreys—a Brooklyn artist who maintained a friendship with Reed since 1961 when they met at Syracuse—spoke of the "sweet" Lou Reed behind his image, others were more blunt.
"He wasn’t a nice guy, but he was one hell of a motherf—king songwriter," said the Fleshtones before the veteran garage rock act tore into "Real Good Time Together," an incendiary performance complete with gray-haired crowd-surfing and an audience sing-along that continued after the band stopped playing.
MC5's Wayne Kramer didn't rose-color his Lou Reed tribute either. He told the crowd that Reed made a public point to distance himself from the MC5's radical politics after the Detroit rockers shared the stage with the Velvet Underground one night. (Side note: My God, what a two-fer.)
Hell, even Lou Reed's catalog is still divisive. While Suzanne Vega's "Walk on the Wild Side" and Spandau Ballet's "Satellite of Love" (watch above) were obvious crowd pleasers, the evening's take on Reed's game-changing "Sister Ray" left some of the less-adventurous Reed fans rigid in their seats. For 17 minutes.
The work was brilliantly rendered by the Baseball Project—a supergroup featuring two members of R.E.M. and Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn—but the aural orgy wasn't to everyone's liking. Yet even that mixed response is a tribute to Reed's musical prescience—after 46 years, some devotes still aren't 100% on board with the chugging noise rock apocalypse.
On the other side of the spectrum, alt-country master Lucinda Williams delivered a stunningly gorgeous "Pale Blue Eyes," Sean Lennon offered a rousing rendition of "What Goes On," Alejandro Escovedo lead an impressive version of the three-part epic "Street Hassle" and the Black Lips tweaked out playing "Run, Run, Run."
And on the curious side of things, RuPaul's Drag Race winner Sharon Needles sang a surprisingly lovely "Candy Says," while former Andy Warhol superstar/pinup Joe Dallesandro read the lyrics to Reed's "Smalltown."
In a way, Dallesandro is an exemplar of the inescapable pull of Lou Reed. After all, Reed famously slammed the actor on his Live: Take No Prisoners album, raving, "Little Joe was an idiot. You talk to him for two minutes, you realize he has an IQ of 12."
But even with that less-than-warm history, the former Warhol acolyte still showed up to pay his respects and—as Reed undoubtedly would've laughed at—stumble over the words to Lou's biographical Warhol track "Smalltown."
Whether you begrudgingly admire him or worship him, Lou Reed remains the most essential, enigmatic and richly rewarding figure in alt-rock.