Written by: Richard Whitehouse
John Cale and Band
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Friday 30 September 2005
EMI 0946 334 378 2
Few artists have maintained so ‘dark horse’ a profile over the years as John Cale, currently in a productive phase as songwriter and front-man of his latest touring band. Anyone having followed his South Bank appearances will know Cale gigs come in varied guises: this South Bank appearance found him in combative form – the first among equals of an (otherwise nameless) four-piece ensemble, no doubt drawn from the pool of musicians featured on his last two albums. In its combined adrenaline and dexterity – with Cale switching deftly between electric and acoustic guitars, and keyboards – it confirms the undying vitality of the standard rock format, as well as the continuing adaptability of the Cale songbook.
Cale donned his trademark viola for the only time on this evening on the first song – a subtle rethink of “Venus In Furs” that played down its sadomasochist imagery in favour of a fractured and drone-laden modality. This double-homage to Cale’s beginnings in the New York experimental scene and the Velvet Underground apart, all of the material was drawn from his sporadic if distinctive solo career. There was space for a brooding “Gideon’s Bible” from his 1970 debut Vintage Violence – otherwise, Cale’s years with Island (still the most high-profile of his numerous solo phases) was well represented. Thus from 1974’s Fear came the haunting “Ship Of Fools” and a gritty, industrial “Gun” that bulldozed everything in its eight-minute wake; from 1975’s “Slow Dazzle”, a suitably scuzzy “Dirty Ass Rock And Roll” and a punchy take on “Guts” (the immortal first line still rushed through); and from Helen of Troy, also 1975, a menacing version of the title track, the doomed majesty of “China Sea” and a “Leaving It Up To You” of surpassing sleaziness; as well as the evergreen “Pablo Picasso” which served as a sing-along encore. Three decades on and Cale’s skewed art-rock has lost none of its power to provoke and unsettle.
One of the more unexpected yet heartening recent musical occurrences has been Cale’s return to the album-and-tour format that, currently in a long-term contract with EMI, he clearly no longer sees as a treadmill to be endured. 2003’s Hobosapiens confirmed that, while his erstwhile sparring partner Lou Reed still hankered after artistic credibility, Cale was busy channelling his artistic instincts into as finely-honed a collection of songs as has appeared this decade – typified by a trio of modern pop classics: “Things”, the ethereal ambience of “Lost Horizon” and the searching tribute that is “Magritte”; all three tracks taking on a new perspective in swapping studio ingenuity for live immediacy.
As did the seven tracks from Cale’s latest studio offering, blackAcetate (not available at the gig, despite an ‘official’ release three days on!). Tauter than its predecessor (the thirteen tracks playing for barely 53 minutes), this continues Cale’s bringing the hallmarks of his pop sensibility into a productive synthesis – informed but never overawed by developments this past decade. The smooth falsetto of “Outta The Bag” gives a new-wave edge to this understated album opener, and there is a smouldering unease at the heart of “Hush”. By contrast, “Gravel Drive” is among the most radiant songs Cale has yet written, and its juxtaposition with the hard-rocking “Perfect” is perfectly judged at the centre of the album. Both tracks came over well in their live setting, but “Sold-Motel” had an energy on the night that the studio rendering can only hint at, and the R ‘n’ B-undertones of “Turn The Lights On” evinced an equally visceral surge to get the punters going as the gig neared its mid-point.
Seasoned admirers as well as those new to his art will find blackAcetate is mandatory listening, but no-one should underestimate the thrill of hearing Cale in the flesh – especially when his voice (replete with blood-curdling scream) still carries so forcefully, yet, when needed, poetically over the band.
The ‘backing’ quartet played with the right degree of loose intensity to galvanise his now tranquil, now scabrous musical visions, with the Queen Elizabeth Hall acoustic well suited to projecting the songs’ naked intensity. No longer an artist compelled to live out his music in public, Cale seems well able to convey its impact within a framework of affable informality. And the surge of mayhem when a few dozen of the audience responded to his entreaty to come down to the front of stage was a reminder that Cale’s career, for all its peaks and troughs, could never be accused of being stage-managed.