John Cale (voice & keyboards) with Dustin Boyer (guitars), Joe Karnes (bass guitar), Michael Jerome (percussion), and The Heritage Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Although John Cale has made regular appearances at the Southbank Centre, most recently with the Nico-tribute show “Borderlines”, he was yet to join those following in the wake of Brian Wilson by recreating their most famous album live. Having presented “Paris 1919” in Cardiff last year, it made sense to do so in London, and Cale was joined here by his touring band and the Heritage Orchestra.
Released early in 1973, “Paris 1919” represents the climax of Cale’s first phase as a solo performer. During that period, he assumed the role of singer-songwriter to create a series of low-key studio albums that earned critical respect yet little recognition. The relative success of “Paris” changed that to the extent that the need to take his music ‘on the road’ became more pressing – thus the shift in emphasis with the album “Fear” that appeared in 1974 and which culminated with the album “Sabotage Live” five years on. The point being that “Paris” is essentially a studio concept in which Cale, with help from the band Little Feat and members of University College of Los Angeles orchestra, gave vent to his musical instincts in a highly wrought album whose performance was very much a secondary issue.
Something that came to mind in a rendering of ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’ whose tentativeness was a poor substitute for the majesty of the original – the orchestral players getting in the way of the melody line rather than expanding or enriching it while, standing behind a keyboard console at the front of the stage, Cale sounded edgy and distracted. Matters soon improved – the pensiveness of ‘Hanky Panky Nohow’ enabling him to regain composure, before the string-saturated textures of ‘The Endless Plain of Fortune’ effected its potent spell (though why its plangent harmonies should have been so modified is anyone’s guess) and the rapture of ‘Andalucia’ amply confirmed that Cale’s voice – never of the note-perfect variety – has gained in expressive warmth over the intervening years.
A change to the album’s running-order saw the musicians head straight into the title-track: as with many of his lyrics, ‘Paris 1919’ may refer to events real or imagined, yet such is the acuity of their setting that they communicate meaning almost in spite of themselves. One of Cale’s most insinuating numbers came over as if newly minted (not least during its beatific ‘Les Tuileries’ interlude); while the reconfigured backing for ‘Graham Greene’ was preferable to the gimmicky original (would many of the younger audience members know who Enoch Powell was?). ‘Half Past France’ is the emotional heart of the album, and its dreamily speculative verses leading to the quietly ecstatic chorus did not disappoint. Interestingly, Cale then chose to sing the words of ‘Antarctica Starts Here’ rather than whisper them – though this made for a more suitable transition into ‘Macbeth’, repositioned here so that the only true ‘rocker’ on the album rounded off the performance in suitably dynamic fashion.
Even extended to 35 minutes “Paris 1919” was always a short ‘main feature’, thus Cale returned with his band for a set that commenced with the reflective ‘Amsterdam’, then continued with the unlikely fusion of ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘Rosegarden Funeral of Sores’ in a medley both alluring and unsettling. His inimitable reworking of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sent a shiver down the audience’s collective spine, while ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ was as poised between the catchy and the psychotic as it ever was. The orchestra emerged for the luminous setting of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ (from 1989’s “Words for the Dying” – hard to imagine the album’s Royal Festival Hall presentation back then had to be cancelled owing to poor ticket sales!), followed by a suitably epic ‘Hedda Gabler’ – belatedly acknowledged as one of Cale’s greatest songs. It saw the evening to its appropriate climax, yet Cale and band had enough in reserve for a visceral ‘Dirty Ass Rock And Roll’ which brought the house down.
An evening, then, that began tardily before taking on the intensity and the energy of a vintage Cale performance. With Cale and his band sounding as tightly focussed as on their live tours of 2004 and 2006, it can only be hoped that further activity – live and in the studio – will be forthcoming. For now, this was a welcome and, for the most part, successful revisiting of past success. It also provided a platform for the quirky artistry of Patrick Wolf, whose twin inspirations of Cale and Hindemith were evident in his oblique but elegantly crafted songs. Opening with a plaintive ‘Ari’s Song’ (from the Nico album “The Marble Index” that launched Cale as a producer), he switched adeptly between viola, guitar and keyboards before ending with a song-in-progress – bravely sung a cappella. A strong element of fairy-tale Expressionism will not be to all tastes, but there was enough substance and individuality to make his music – not least the well-regarded fourth studio album “The Bachelor” – worth investigating.