“I’ve made a career out of three chords,” Lou Reed explained while introducing “Sweet Jane,” the opening number of his Wiltern Theater concert. He’s being slyly disingenuous, of course, downplaying his musical sophistication — and the fact that some of his best songs have gotten by on only two. But his wry, self-effacing delivery — “Jane” actually uses four chords, he admitted — set the tone for his swiftly moving 2½-hour performance.
As on the recently released “NYC Man: The Collection” (RCA/BMG Heritage), Reed doesn’t organize the evening chronology or thematically; rather, the set list is constructed like a well-edited anthology, the juxtapositions chosen because they flow into one another or reveal unexpected musical consonances. Not simply a run-through of Reed’s best-known songs, the wide-ranging and sharply performed show mixed crowd favorites such as “Venus in Furs” with material from his deeply personal, often thorny post-Velvet Underground albums of the last 30-plus years.
The song selection showcased Reed’s sharply observed, literate lyrics. He introduced “Street Hassle” as a song that could have been “written by William S. Burroughs, Nelson Algren, Hubert Selby or Raymond Chandler”; songs such as “The Day John Kennedy Died,” “Smalltown” and the Kurt Weill-influenced “Vanishing Act,” from recent Warner Bros. disc “The Raven,” have the subtle shadings and finely wrought detail of a good novel.
The songs are also rearranged for his wonderfully supple band, featuring longtime collaborators Fernando Saunders on bass and Mike Rathke on guitar along with cellist Jane Scarpantoni and the mono-named, angelic-voiced Antony on background vocals. The lack of drums gave the evening a chamber-music delicacy, although the band built to a crushing intensity on “Set the Twilight Reeling” and “Ecstasy.”
Each of the musicians was given a moment to shine: Saunders took the vocal spotlight on his “Reviens Cherie,” revealing a sweet high tenor; Scarpantoni offered a searing solo during “Venus in Furs,” reminding the audience that the Velvets were one of the pioneers in using strings in a rock setting; and Antony brought down the house with his gorgeously vulnerable vocal on “Candy Says,” its bruised, almost feminine quality perfectly encapsulating the song’s gender-bending subject.
On guitars, Rathke and Reed were a study in contrasts. Rathke ran his instrument through a series of boxes and effects, his guitar a musical chameleon. Reed — a woefully undervalued guitarist — favors the instrument’s horn-like harmonics; his tightly knotted solo on “Ecstasy” has the gritty sweetness of a soprano sax.
Unexpected entrance of Reed’s tai chi trainer, Ren Guangyi, actually helped “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” one of the evening’s few musical missteps (the chunky arrangement blunted the song’s modal beauty). Guangyi’s elegant movements cut through the air like an instrumental solo.
By the time Reed played his third encore (a rare performance of “Heroin”), it was apparent he had built a model for retrospective concerts — he sent the audience home to ready to pull out and reassess his old albums while remaining eager to see what he will come up with next.