The Velvet Underground were little more than a rumor when Lou Reed left the band in 1970, but by 1974, thanks to Reed’s success as a solo artist, the Velvets had become a bona fide cult item, and that year Mercury Records released a two-record set compiled from tapes from shows in Dallas and San Francisco entitled 1969: Velvet Underground Live. The album featured a generous 104 minutes of music, and when Mercury reissued it on CD in 1988, rather than edit the material or release a two-CD set, they put out the album as two separate discs. While this seemed like a rather curious move, the album’s sequence was such that it divided in half quite cleanly, and while any VU fan will want both volumes, they don’t work half bad as individual albums. 1969: Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 1 rocks a bit harder than its counterpart; it opens with a grooving version of “Waiting for My Man,” moves on to a rave-up take of “What Goes On” that features some of Lou Reed’s finest rhythm guitar work, and closes out with passionate renditions of “Rock and Roll” and “Beginning to See the Light.” And where there are a number of ballads on hand (most notably a lovely take of “Lisa Says” and versions of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age” considerably different from those on Loaded), they sound just as committed and compelling as the rockers. While the Doug Yule-era edition of the Velvet Underground often gets short shrift from aficionados, the performances on 1969: Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 1 prove this band still had plenty of fire, and was playing at the top of their game. The CD also adds a final bonus track, an unreleased version of “Heroin”; while the same song appears on Vol. 2, this recording is a different (and considerably more aggressive) performance.
Maureen Tucker once said that one of her greatest regrets about her tenure in the Velvet Underground is that the band didn’t record their shows, and while the live tapes that do survive of the group’s performances document an extraordinary band, sadly there aren’t very many of them. 1969: Velvet Underground Live, a two-record set released in 1974, is the best and most compelling (legally released) document of the band’s powers in concert, but given its length (over 104 minutes), when Mercury Records reissued the set on CD in 1988, they opted to send it out as two separate single-disc albums, rather than as a two-disc set. The three long songs that open 1969: Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 2 (they were the whole of side three on the vinyl release) capture the Velvets at their most hypnotically beautiful, easing from the slow but dramatic ebb and flow of “Ocean,” through the lovely melancholy of “Pale Blue Eyes,” into the slow, unbearable build to manic frenzy of “Heroin.” The disc’s second half finds the band in more conventional but no less satisfying form, shifting back and forth between mid-tempo numbers like “Over You” and “Some Kinda Love” and charging rockers such as “White Light/White Heat” (a fine version of “I Can’t Stand It” has been added for the CD issue). While Lou Reed’s passionate vocals and guitar work are front and center throughout, the rest of the band is in equally superb form, especially Sterling Morrison, still the finest foil Reed ever had on guitar, and Maureen Tucker, whose subtle, highly musical drumming is at once minimal and superbly intelligent. If you care at all about the Velvet Underground, both volumes of 1969: Velvet Undergound Live belong in your collection, but Vol. 2 is the one to get if you want to know how much more this band could do than create bracing noise.
-Mark Deming, allmusic.com