VU completists will love this album and everyone else will ignore it.
For all their association with New York at the peak of its dingy, Warholian cool, the Velvet Underground didn’t spend all that much time in the city as a band once their relationship with the pop art Svengali dissolved. In fact, one could argue that the band’s true home was not in New York, but in Boston, where the more streamlined, Lou Reed-centric iteration of the band worked on its material. While there, they were a regular fixture at the Boston Tea Party, where they played to packed houses and where the likes of Jonathan Richman absorbed lessons from the seminal group. Ideally, a document of that era would be worthwhile listening regardless of the quality, but while the exhaustingly comprehensive Live at the Boston Tea Party ‘68 & ‘69 strives to be essential, it’s the sort of dingy live document that is only a draw for the most devoted of fans.
The version of the Velvet Underground presented at these shows is one at an interesting point of transition. The band was coming off their harshest release, White Light/White Heat, yet the subsequent departure of John Cale found them moving away from the tense, avant-garde work that had defined the band at that point and towards something that more closely resembled conventional rock music. This is evident in the first live performances of the box set, recorded only a few months after Cale’s departure: the careening “White Light/White Heat” feels reined-in, more of a 4/4 pop tune than a wild, careening freak-out, and “Heroin” gains aggression but loses a sense of otherworldly doom without Cale’s viola. The performances indicate a band shedding its past identity, but this new-look Velvets simply couldn’t recreate or re-interpret their older, weirder material in a way that was truly gripping.
Fortunately, Reed and new songwriter Doug Yule were already working on a new album at that point, and the material from the band’s then-unreleased third album fares much better than the older material. These sets are generally aggressive, rock-heavy affairs, so even relatively quiet songs like “I’m Set Free” have more of an edge to them, while “What Goes On” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” sound reliably great. Meanwhile, the band still find time to quiet things down with versions of “Jesus” and “Candy Says” that accurately ape their recorded counterparts (though the latter features a Reed lead vocal performance that they thankfully avoided replicating in the studio). By the time we reach the fourth show in the box set, the band is playing almost entirely new material, and the old songs they carry over are only the sort that work with their new iteration. As a document of the Velvets’ evolution from arty weirdos to conventional (if somewhat off-kilter) rock band, Live at the Boston Tea Party is fascinating at times.
It’s too bad, then, that the actual recordings sound awful. Granted, it’s likely that these shows were recorded with no intent of ever releasing the recordings commercially, but that doesn’t make the peaking guitars and ear-splitting treble a less difficult thing to listen to at times. What’s more, the performances, while occasionally quite good, don’t stand up well next to other live Velvets documents like the far better Live at Max’s Kansas City; the band is often sloppy, especially as they struggle to revamp their old material for new arrangements. Perhaps there’s a ramshackle charm here for some listeners, but a set this long with such a low level of recording quality could be more of a test than a treat for others.
Still, Live at the Boston Tea Party remains interesting as an historical artifact. Given how highly this period of the Velvets’ history is spoken of by the band’s members and people around them, it’s good that a document of this period exists and is so neatly presented as it is here. However, those looking for the definitive live Velvets album may be better suited looking elsewhere, as Live at the Boston Tea Party is very much the sort of album that completists will love and everyone else will ignore.