Release Date: Nov 20, 2015
Record label: Polydor
Much of the material the Velvets performed over a series of shows at the Matrix club in San Francisco in November 1969 has crept out before – on the Live 1969 album, The Quine Tapes box (in extreme lo-fi) and last year’s reissue of the third album. Here, though, is the mother lode – all the available music, in excellent recordings. It’s fascinating stuff, even for those for whom a 37-minute version of Sister Ray is pushing it a bit.
There are few bands bootlegged quite like the Velvet Underground, especially because theirs is a different sort of bootleg culture. Sure, you have bands like the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam whose fans famously trade tapes of nearly every show that’s ever been played by their group of choice, but the scarcity of quality Velvets live recordings makes even the poorest-quality releases sought after in certain quarters. This makes The Complete Matrix Tapes distinct for its relatively high quality, but that’s not what makes it a necessary addition to the Velvets discography.
The Velvet Underground are arguably the most important American band of the second half of the '60s, but few seemed to think so at the time. The Velvets flew under the radar of public recognition through most of their career, and no one bothered to professionally record their live shows between 1966 and 1970. There have been plenty of authorized and illicit releases of Velvets live tapes (mostly audience recordings) since the early '70s, but one thing they had in common was compromised fidelity; in terms of audio, "pretty OK" is as good as they get, and for fans, listening for the music through the murk is a frustrating challenge.
The Velvet Underground were pioneers with blazing heads, Jesus' sons and daughter, the progenitors of seemingly everything that came after them. Assessing the four studio albums they released between 1967 and 1970 on the Pitchfork scale is like measuring a yardstick. They were also a perpetually struggling touring rock group like any other, playing extended engagements at large and small clubs all over the East and West Coasts, often two shows a night, to an audience of people who mostly just wanted to dance.
Legendary 1969 concert tapes officially released at last. In November and December 1969, in between the release of the eponymous Velvet Underground album and 1970’s Loaded, Lou Reed and co played a residency at The Matrix in San Francisco, an ex-pizza parlour turned venue owned by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin. ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads .
There are many Velvet Undergrounds – the avant-pop shockers of The Velvet Underground and Nico, the proto-punk noisemakers of White Light/White Heat, the folk-rock redemption-seekers of the self-titled third LP, the coulda-been mainstream contenders of Loaded. And then, as this four-disc set shows, there was the live band, which was something else again. In its sprawling way, The Complete Matrix Tapes is the Europe '72 of Velvet Underground releases, and in the same way, it's one of the band's defining documents.
That Time in ‘69 When the Velvets Were a California Band There’s been a load of Velvet Underground material floating about of late, but this is probably the most important and the most revealing. Captured in the dimming days of 1969, just months after the group issued its third LP and months before the band, with newest member Doug Yule in the ranks, would return to the studio to record the mighty Loaded LP, this is a band that was equal parts dangerous, demanding, assured, sarcastic, arty, unreal, sincere, tentative, patient, searching, ironic, sincere, unpretentious, formidable, and surprisingly capable of pure entertainment. The group was, on one hand, out of its element.
Late October saw Rhino’s deluxe reissue of Loaded, which followed the six-CD and book template used by Universal on the first three Velvets albums. Now, Universal have expanded two discs from its Super Deluxe treatment of The Velvet Underground into four complete sets from the shows at San Francisco’s Matrix in November 1969. But, while the music is frequently revelatory, capturing the post-Cale line-up chilled and stretching out, as on the 40-minute Sister Ray with Lou’s guitar on overdrive, most tracks have appeared before; on 1974’s 1969 Live, 2001’s The Quine Tapes and the third album reissue.
You can practically count every person in the room by listening to the handclaps on this essential live documentation of the Sixties' most influential, unsung rock & roll band. Sounds like maybe 10 people tops witnessed NYC proto-punk noiseniks the Velvet Underground assaulting a San Francisco club co-owned by the Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin across 18 nights in late 1969. Thanks to the foresight of one of his partners constructing an on-site four-track recording facility, cultists are now treated to the best-recorded live VU documentation ever.