By Michelle Trauring
When Carlos Lama first told G.E. Smith about his idea for a Velvet Underground cover show, Smith just so happened to have a guitar next to him.
The former “Saturday Night Live” bandleader picked it up and started playing one of the group’s iconic songs, note for note, from memory.
Lama was flabbergasted.
This may not have been ground for shock and awe if it were any other band, he said. But when bones of playful contention revolve around even the correct chord of any given Velvet Underground song, his reaction was understandable — and expected.
“These songs are very interesting to learn how to play, especially the earlier ones, because they’re so out of tune and they’re kind of just going for it,” said Kevin Foran, bassist for East End-based band Cracked Actor.
“There’s a certain dissonance that is unlike stuff that was being made back then,” said vocalist Lama.
“There’s much debate over, ‘What key is this song is? What chord is that guy playing right there?’” Foran said with a laugh.
“So it’s been a little challenging, but it’s still a lot of fun to explore,” Lama added.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” from one of the most influential forces on rock, underground, experimental and alternative music, the bandmates explained. Together with drummer Anthony Genovesi, Jack Marshall on guitar, violin and piano, and special guest G.E. Smith on lead guitar and vocals, Lama and Foran will take on Velvet’s wide repertoire and provocative subject matter as Cracked Actor — a band that originally formed to memorialize the late David Bowie — on Saturday night at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett.
“The Velvet Underground was a huge influence on everything that happened after them — whether it’s very clear, whether it’s not so clear,” Foran said. “I think Lou Reed, specifically, and the Velvet Underground, they were talking about stuff that nobody was really supposed to talk about.”
“Bad things, like the seedier side of life,” Lama said. “Like drug addiction.”
“They were speaking for people who didn’t really have an outlet on a bigger stage, so to speak,” Foran said.
Lou Reed and Velvet Underground were part of the Factory scene — home to Andy Warhol’s studio, but also a creative hub and meeting place for artists and musicians, and a showground for hip parties filled with drugs and a cast of colorful characters and superstars, from Ultra Violet and Madonna to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Liza Minnelli.
“If people want to dress up, we encourage that to try and recreate the Andy Warhol Factory experience. Basically wear anything flamboyant,” Lama said. “The Velvet Underground was part of the whole scene, and the type of things that the band did — they incorporated drones in the music, so they had these long, meandering songs — was unlike anything that was heard on certainly radio stations, or in rock, back then.
“They, better than any other band, described what it was like to live in the city at that time.”
The set list will span the band’s discography, as well as Lou Reed’s earlier solo work, Lama said. Their integration of rock and avant-garde — not to mention their musical experimentation and often-nihilistic attitude — was not particularly popular in their time, he said, but would grow to be appreciated and painstakingly duplicated.
“‘Venus in Furs,’ if we can get that sound, that’s probably the one song that, for me anyway, encapsulates the early Velvet Underground sound and puts it all together,” Lama said of the song originally released on the band’s debut album. “And then, of course, ‘Heroin’ is probably one of their biggest songs and that’s an epic journey. But it could also be considered controversial considering the opioid epidemic. The song, in no way, glorifies it.”
“It’s pretty much a description and account,” Foran said.
“They were willing to break new bounds,” Lama said, “and we’re willing to pay homage to them.”
Cracked Actor will celebrate The Velvet Underground and their principal songwriter, Lou Reed, with a concert on Saturday, January 13, at 8 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse, located at 161 Main Street in Amagansett. Tickets are $10. For more information, please call (631) 267-3117 or visit stephentalkhouse.com.