Britta & Dean | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Yo La Tengo, Dean & Britta celebrated 50 years of the Velvet Underground at the Gershman Y
Fifty years after Andy Warhol made Philadelphians uncomfortable with the local debut of his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” featuring Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, The Gershman Y offered up the very same stage for a commemorative event last Thursday evening. The show was a veritable double-feature, though technically headlined by indie rock vets Yo La Tengo’s full set of Velvets covers, who followed Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ live rendition of their score for Warhol’s “screen test” films.
Having been commissioned some seven years ago to compose an original soundtrack for the films, Dean and Britta offered their 13 Most Beautiful — instrumentals and original songs, with some Dylan and Velvets mixed in — all presented against the backdrop of a selection of Warhol’s short black-and-white video portraits of contemporary icons that loomed hauntingly over the stage. Between songs, the two singers narrated with biographical anecdotes of the likes of models Edie Sedgwick and Baby Jane Holzer, Nico and Dennis Hopper, creating four-minute mini-portraits, the ultimate distillation of a prominent ‘60s counterculture. Lou Reed’s own screen test was juxtaposed against a cover of “Not A Young Man Anymore,” — an early Velvets’ song that surfaced only relatively recently — as their frontman Lou Reed’s nursed a glass Coke bottle, his lips curled characteristically, his eyes obscured behind his trademark dark black shades.
Several minutes of jarring amplifier feedback heralded the Yo La Tengo’s stage introduction, and bled into the opening chords of “Femme Fatale” as singer Georgia Hubley took her place at a stage-left vocal mic. Hubley played equal parts Nico and Maureen Tucker, taking on “All Tomorrow’s Parties” from behind her drum kit. For his part, singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan channeled all of Lou Reed’s contributions too, delivering dissonant solos hunched over his Fender stacks, wrestling with his guitar as though it were an intractable wild animal.
The band treated the sold-out venue to seven tracks from the Velvet’s 1967 debut, before bringing their set home with an ambitious take on the 17-minute opus “Sister Ray” from 1968’s White Light/White Heat, and returning for a quick encore with a cover of the more obscure “Guess I’m Falling In Love.”
It can be hard to imagine, at a distance of fifty years, the full impact that Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” shows made in the mid-1960s, and all the offense and controversy and chatter ignited on Broad Street on those two December evenings by his crew of avant-garde art-rock provocateurs. And in the context of a modern American culture that’s shed some sensitivity to the taboos of counterculture — where we’ve witnessed recently even those forums of public discourse once reserved for more “lofty” rhetoric now bending sharply toward the profane — it can be hard to imagine sometimes that any kind of art could serve on its own to push the boundaries of mores, catalyze cultural revolutions, and incite and inspire at that same intensity anymore.
To their credit, Andy Warhol and his Velvet Underground did all that, once, leaving in their wake a decades-long legacy of artists and bands influenced and empowered by their vision. On Thursday night, Philly fans were lucky to get to see two of those bands play an impassioned tribute to that vision, in the same city that once had the vision to host it.