Live Reviews

John Cale – Town Hall, Birmingham: Live Review

John Cale delivers a fulminant retrospective, blending the current with the past, a mix of deep cuts and a lot of new.

Mercy, John Cale’s 20th solo release in the 55 years since his partner in crime/nemesis, Lou Reed, engineered his being bounced from the Velvet Underground, is a beguiling and sometimes baffling listen. Yes, his powerful boom of a voice is intact, his gift for melody largely preserved, but, as with much of his work this century, it is as if he is driven to remain at the more experimental end of his oeuvre, sometimes at the expense of appeasing his audience. Fair play; it’s his party and he can (make us) sigh if he wants to. But, tin hat, the album tries just a tad too hard to be forward looking, managing a feel somewhere round about 1993, with too many dated synths and vocoders messing with voices. Having said that, there are at least two or three bangers, up there with his best, that make it worth a detour.

So it was with some sense of anticipation that I sat in the stalls at Brum’s Town Hall, a venue nearly as iconic as the performer and his backstory. Sadly, only 2/3 full, nonetheless the expectation of the committed faithful was palpable, many of those present possibly able to have seen VU in their pomp. And many, no doubt, as the story goes, would anyway claim to have, whether or not they then started a band.

A brave young woman started things off. Alone on stage, save the, largely, props of a bass, a guitar and a keyboard, she tinkered with each in turn, her laptop doing most of the musical heavy lifting. With vocals as nervously breathless as she clearly was: “it’s an honour to even being in the same city as John Cale“, she was a rabbit caught in the headlights. Yes, one could sense the germ of probably a decent idea in each of the songs she played, but it was if she had forgotten that, in the glow of the spotlight. Best received came an unadorned voice and guitar of Jackson Browne’s These Days. Or, given present company, Nico’s. Manu Grace her name, I would actually like to hear her records, to hear how she should sound.

Lights back down, a low keyboard drone filled the hall, like a cloud of malevolent flies, mood music while we waited for the man. Apt and atmospheric, with more of those flies later. As the stage lights came up, smack on 9, strangely, so did those in the auditorium: “so I can see you”, said the surprisingly sprightly figure, standing, behind a keyboard, front stage right: “Hello, Brum”. With every fibre in me saying don’t say his age, it’s impossible not too, as, a slight stoop in his steadied gait, he looks ridiculously good for a man a fortnight shy of 81. Lights back down and showtime!

With a conventional trio of musicians behind him, guitar, bass and drums, there came the reassuring feeling this might show the more human side of his more recent material. And that it was, as they opened with the clash and clatter of Jumbo In Tha Modernworld, immediately displaying Cale’s baritone to be in fine fettle, and displaying the pedigree chops of his band from first note onward. Alex Thomson showed himself to be a percussionist of no little nuance, his mighty thumps riding both around and on the rhythm. Regular bassist, Joey Maramba, and even more regular guitarist, Dean Boyer, locked horns and locked in, Maramba with surely 8 fingers on either hand, and Boyer providing accord in his discordance, finding melody from chaos. Cale, singing apart, was content to add sporadic tinkles of piano, guiding the flow, turning his head back to his boys as the destination arrived. This 2006 single was a triumphant start.

With a screen suspended at the back, above skyline of the band, random visuals now became a distorting image of the much younger Cale, alongside Nico. For the next song was Moonstruck (aka Nico’s Song), from the new album. Without all the orchestration of the studio version, it was nonetheless a delight, the simpler arrangement carrying better the beauty of and affection in the song. Then the more challenging Rosegarden Funeral of Sores, with it’s uplifting and catchy title, let alone lyric. Less gaunt than in the form first aired, this was a textbook definition of post-punk, the band a controlled coil of pent-up energy, Maramba a metronomic pulse, Cale intoning the vocal with implied threat. From there a return to Mercy, the double whammy of the title track and Nightcrawling. The former is as melodic as any song he has written and, here, without any of the FX that come with the album, it showed a far greater naked beauty. Nightcrwling is a tale looking back to his and David Bowie’s late night cavortings in a New York of long ago last century, and came accompanied by a short cartoon video of the two of them, and other notables of the time, doing just that, repeated on a loop to underline the sense of another age. Or the shortness of the clip. Again, with the band and without studio trickery, it was a delight, a very, appropriately, 70’s feel to it.

Wasteland, from 2005, is another of Cale’s more majestic tunes. No viola tonight, whilst that would have been nice, the rendition tonight didn’t need it. It was good to see the band enjoying it; no mechanoids these, the glee with which they pummelled this and all the selections was a delight, all smiles as they added the backing vocals. I think for Wasteland came a striking film clip, maybe for another song, but featuring the above promised flies. A motley selccion therof, crawling over what seemed initially to be a shoulder, later a unscpecifiable haunch of meat. Lovely…. Guts is another winnining tune, to my mind very early Roxy Music in feel, yelps and all, with pounded piano and guitar flourishes. Is this good or is this better? Cale then shuffles from behind his keyboard to accept a stratocaster around his neck, playing this for a faithful Cable Hogue, a storm kicking up behind his causal strum.

If Paris 1919 is his most accessible album, Half Past France is one of the more elegiac songs, here treated to a somewhat different arrangement and even tune, to the delight of my gig-buddy, well versed in all things Cale. Out Your Window is another from Mercy, and, like the recorded version, had me wryly rueing on how much like a mid-period Human League song it sounded, the vocals strainingly like Phil Oakey, together with the chordal progressions and Thomson’s use of an electronic drum pad This thought returns on re-listening to the album, and in a number of places. It is an irony not lost on me, somehow feeling one of the singers might take more pleasure from the comparison than the other, convinced that Cale was a prime influence on the original Being Boiled hitmakers. Caribbean Sunsight is generally seen his nadir, but, from that album, Villa Albani gets a radical reworking, all extreme noise terror. The band again grinning like loons as they deconstruct with abandon, bowed bass and Theremin featuring alongside the cataclysmic drums, with Boyer laughingly giving Thomson’s tom-toms a sly wallop on his way past. A cacophony of controlled chaos, it seemed clear we were at the end.

Encore? Even the lighting crew seemed uncertain, the long pause triggering the house lights to start coming back up again, despite the sustained applause. Were we to get one at all, Cale notoriously fickle in that department? Heartbreak Hotel had been aired on an earlier night, his revisioning of the Presley great into Brecht and Weill territory, and as aired on the Ayers, Cale, Nico, Eno live album of, shh, 1974. No, joyously and gloriously it was personal Cale favourite, Close Watch, performed straight and solo, the keyboard set to piano, and showing he has lost no jot of his mastery of the keys. His voice, frail for the first time tonight, matched perfectly the tender lyrics and it could not have ended a stupendous evening better. “See you again”, a wave and he was off. Not if I see you first, John!

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