In case there was still any doubt, here's more proof that the Velvet Underground were quite possibly the greatest band ever to come from the good old U.S. of A. and maybe anywhere. Recorded by future über-guitarist Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Lou Reed) over the course of the group's month-long stay on the West Coast in 1969 (one recording is from a St. Louis gig), the performances on these three discs, at the San Francisco Family Dog at the Beach dance-concert venue and The Matrix club, capture the Velvets stretching out, playing with songs, lyrics, grooves and riffs, and, most of all, each other.
One night, they might play "I'm Waiting for My Man" relatively straightforward, and on another, play it as a slow, dreamy harmony-drenched late-night torch song. And if the thought of extended jams on "Sister Ray" (three versions, varying in length from 24 minutes to 38 minutes) at the end of each disc fills you with trepidation, don't let it sometimes it takes a long, long time to find your mainline, but I swear that on every one of these versions, they not only hit it sideways, they also hit it over, under and down. "I'm Waiting for My Man" and "Sister Ray," by the way, are the only songs on these discs that show up more than once 'cept when the last version of "Sister Ray" spills into "Foggy Notion" making these three discs, with versions of 20 different Velvets classics, almost an embarrassment of riches for Velvets fans.
I'm one, and during a time where my personal life has been turned upside down, The Quine Tapes have been the background, to the point where I spent weeks falling asleep to them with the CD changer on repeat and waking up on the middle of the night to a guitar solo or vocal part I hadn't heard before. It's at once full of reminders of their flat-out greatness, and "new" things that had me wishing I'd heard these recordings years ago. Lucky Robert Quine; he musta been bugging people with some of these songs for years: "No wait, it's this real cool part where Lou's voice breaks!"
So sure, the versions here of "What Goes On" and "Heroin" don't add anything to the forever perfect 1969 Live versions (and "Rock and Roll" is the same version, supposedly remixed, but to my ears, the same). But never in my life am I not going to like Doug Yule's organ solo over Lou Reed's never-ending rhythm guitar in the former, and the latter is a highlight of Maureen Tucker's contributions to the VU. I guess that there is always a possibility that someone buying this has never heard any of those songs live before and could be as blown away by them as I once was, but to me, those songs are more affirmations than revelations. Luckily, there are plenty of revelations: the wild guitar freakout on "White Light/White Heat"; those harmonies on Disc 3's "I'm Waiting for My Man"; the long is-that-a-bass?!? solo in the center of "New Age" (making the song work for me for the first time ever); and most of all, the instrumental section of "Ride Into the Sun," where a majestic guitar/organ duet pushes it straight through to the dark side of the sun.
Oh, and no quibbles about the sound either. While there is possibly a Holy Grail flawless live soundboard recording of the Velvet Underground out there, to me this is how they sounded live: monolithic and muddy, with guitars and organs dancing out of the mix and the drums simultaneously barely there and always there. Topped off anchored, really by Lou Reed's inimitable sing-talk and the incomparable words he wrote.
Here's hoping that this is the beginning of a Dick's Picks-like series of live recordings, or those Coltrane and Miles sets that always seem to be coming out. And while some might decry the further stripping of the mystery and mystique that always surrounded the Velvets a process that actually started with VU 15 years ago, and culminated with the reunion tour most of the rest of us will be happy to get even more of their amazing music.