The Velvet Road: A History of the Velvet Underground in 11 Essential Live Recordings You Can Hear Online

The Velvet Underground’s Complete Matrix Tapes, heard in tantalizing abbreviated form on last year’s The Velvet Underground – 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition (45th?) and available this month as a four-disc set from Universal, are the best-sounding live Velvet Underground recordings that (most likely) exist. Stashed away by a club owner for years, they provide a full-color glimpse into a small window of the legendary band’s half-decade career. But those four sets remain a tiny part of the band’s rich live history, a little over 25 hours of music that, excluding the Matrix Tapes, ranges from semi-unlistenable to transcendentally unlistenable, but all constituting a singular and must-hear canon. The VU-loving ear adjusts quickly.

Despite being part of the fabulously well-documented scene around Andy Warhol’s Factory, the only audio artifact of the Velvets’ residence is a really unlistenable session which includes takes of Nico singing Bob Dylan’s unreleased “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and other oddities. But the earliest full tape of the band worth jamming comes from nearly a year after their first show, recorded in Columbus, Ohio in November 1966 and including the only known recording of “Melody Laughter. A half-hour improvisation with a mysterious range of instrumental voices, including the band’s fuzzed-out guitars and Moe Tucker’s cymbal-less pulse, the jam also contains an organ, possibly a piano (or is that a vibraphone?), feedback, and the occasional wordless wail of Nico’s voice, totally at home, before Reed and others join in for a vocal coda that, by the end, sounds not unlike… the Beach Boys?

The sole complete recording from 1967, and the best-sounding tape with John Cale, the semi-recently-surfaced show from the Velvet Underground at the Gymnasium in Manhattan in April ’67 is the kind of grungy recording that transforms Moe Tucker’s snare drum into the personality-filled center for the band’s wanderings. The Summer of Love is about to start and the Velvets are about to hit the road, not gigging in their hometown again for three years.

The legendary 38-minute alternate “Sweet Sister Ray” has earned its own bootleg LPs, was traded hotly for years, and has never been officially released. But, like other Velvet Underground bootlegs, it might even currently be available via Spotify, Rhapsody, or the iTunes Store, and certainly on YouTube. A regular part of the Velvets’ repertoire, apparently, with its own stream of characters and scenes, its only document comes from the last tape with Cale, made in Cleveland in the spring of ’68, caught by soon-to-be regular VU taper Jaime Klimek, eventually a seminal proto-punk musician in his own right.

Made in Boston in March 1969 by a fan with a tape recorder placed directly in the vicinity of Lou Reed’s Fender, the Guitar Amp Tape is another delight in the Velvet wonder-cabinet, a jet roar of Reed’s guitar and Moe Tucker’s reassuring tock. Vocals and other song-parts are audible in quieter spots and, if ones knows where to listen around the 18-minute mark of a mind-destroying “Sister Ray,” one can hear Reed take the group through their only recorded live version of any cover song: Bobby Bland’s “Turn on Your Lovelight,” the bar-band rave-up staple of Levon Helm and the Hawks, the Grateful Dead, and countless others.

Other essential surviving versions of “Sister Ray” (which is probably really all 17 of them) include the period when the song seems to have become a launchpad for other songs, such as the “Sister Ray” > “Foggy Notion” from May ’69 (from a stash of tapes by guitarist Robert Quine) or the exquisite versions that dissolve into elements of “The Murder Mystery” (like the disputed “Hilltop Festival” version, most likely from January ’69 in Cleveland).

Another well-documented Velvet stand is the band’s two nights (including after hours jams) at the End of Cole Avenue in Dallas in 1969. Released in fragments on Live 1969 along with inferior Matrix recordings from a month later, the October 1969 tapes are filled with little fun bits, like the spritely, harmonica-aided early draft of “I Found a Reason” and sweetly devastating small talk by Reed in between tunes. Still not officially issued by the Velvets, thanks to the loopholes and inconsistencies of the modern streaming market, it can be heard (as of this writing) on the free and legal Spotify.

And then the Matrix Tapes, including (for starters) the only crystalline versions of the sweetly slashing “I Can’t Stand It,” an outtake first issued on the 1985 collection VU with a barbed intro that stretches from Kierkegaard to Hoboken.

By the spring of 1970, Moe Tucker had gone on maternity leave, and Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Doug Yule toured as a trio. The only recordings of that band, officially released with the latest expanded Loaded, have Yule on drums on a few tunes. More beautifully, though, it features tunes without any drums at all, including a weightless, tremolo-heavy segue from “Train ‘Round the Bend” into “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” both works-in-progress for the Velvet Underground album to come.

Drafting Doug Yule’s brother Billy to play drums, the Velvet Underground recorded Loaded and took up residency at Max’s Kansas City in the summer of 1970. Sometimes rehearsing during afternoons (including one tape featuring a final handful of Velvet novelties) and playing almost every night, Lou Reed’s final performance with the group made it into official release by 1972. It doesn’t include any of the future Reed solo songs they’d been rehearsing. “You got a down?” a voice says on the tape at one point on Reed’s last night, which turns out to be writer Jim Carroll. “What is it? A Tuinal? Give it to me immediately!” The band strikes up Reed’s “New Age” and it is.

For the obsessive — and who’s not, these days? — the Velvet bootleg trail picks up again within a year of Reed’s last stand. There’s a Reed/Nico practice tape recorded at the apartment of rock critics Richard and Lisa Robinson, or the Yule-led incarnation of the group documented on the live box Final VU. And Reed and Nico’s cagey 1972 reunion with Cale at Paris’ now-haunted Bataclan, that produced some gorgeous film that can be found online. Or Cale and Reed’s 1990 Songs For Drella reunion (with its own live documents). The band’s 1993 return in their classic Reed/Cale/Tucker/Morrison quartet is perhaps best left explored on a rainy day, but an unlikely performance by Reed, Tucker, and Cale after Morrison’s 1995 death is a sweet cap to the Velvet Underground.