Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico

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John Cale with various artists


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Since her death nearly 20 years ago, Nico has become something of an icon to a lost era: a chanteusewhose outlook can seem remote from a time when not only anything goes but also one which places relatively little value on musical expression other than the most immediate and self-serving kind.

One musician who has long held Nico in high esteem, not least because he was integral to so much of her career, is John Cale – the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose own career has been in the ascent these last few years; with two innovative studio albums on EMI, as well as several live tours to consolidate his once formidable reputation as a live act. The band that has been part of his regular live outfit was on hand for this homage – one that took as its basis a representativeoverview of Nico’s back catalogue for a range of sometimes-variable but often-intriguing re-workings.

All but one of Nico’s studio albums (the pleasurable but covers-focused 1967 debut “Chelsea Girl”) was drawn upon for the 18 numbers that made up this double set. As the album that established Nico as an artist and Cale (aka Frazier Mohawk) as a producer, 1969’s “The Marble Index” was naturally much in evidence with six numbers, but so was its too underrated 1970 follow-up “Desertshore” with seven selections, while the three tracks from their last collaboration, 1985’s “Camera Obscura”, served as a reminder that the difficult circumstances surrounding its creation did not undermine its content.

As to the performers, all but two reappeared in the second set. Of these, Liz Green contributed a sparse but appealingly breathy ‘Ari’s Song’, accompanied only by celesta, while James Dean Bradfield made a valiant but overly melodramatic stab at the mighty ‘Janitor of Lunacy’ to conclude the first set. Of those who contributed twice, the egregious Peter Murphy sprawled unconvincingly all over ‘Mutterlein’ but brought out the nihilistic chill of ‘Abschied’ to potent effect. The much-fancied (not least by the audience) Guillemots gave ‘My Heart Is Empty’ the sledgehammer treatment worthy of Cale at his most recalcitrant, but their talents were better employed in a take on ‘My Only Child’ that exuded wistfulness and heartache. The highlight of the evening, Lisa Gerrard interpreted ‘Falconer’ and ‘No One Is There’ – both to a backdrop of reverb-drenched ambience – with a vocal command and expressive poise which suggested her to be that most unlikely phenomenon: Nico’s true successor.

The modish Fiery Furnaces weighed in with a nonchalant (!) ‘Evening Of Light’, whose most remarkable aspect was that anyone should have thought to do so in the first place, but regained a measure of respect with a punchy account of ‘Fearfully In Danger’. The spectral cowboy that appears to be Mark Linkous seemed ill at ease with the heroin-fuelled angst of ‘You Forgot To Answer’ (from 1974’s much-maligned album “The End”), but was much more at ease in an affectionate string-based rendering of the blissful ‘Afraid’. Conversely, the careworn vocal of Mark Lanegan was gainfully deployed in ‘Roses in the Snow’, but his gritty and rather plodding take on ‘Win A Few’ quickly outstayed its welcome.

For his part, Cale was content to play keyboards along with his band on all but three of the selection. He himself provided vocals for an opening take on ‘Frozen Warnings’ that had a slow-burning power if not the mesmeric poignancy of his piano-accompanied version; a suitably animated cover of ‘Sixty Forty’ (interesting in that comes from 1979’s “Drama of Exile” – the only mature Nico album with which Cale had no involvement) and a straight-ahead version of ‘Facing The Wind’ which, with the band in full flow, brought the second set to a close. All the participants then reassembled for an encore of ‘All That Is My Own’, with Murphy and Gerrard exchanging verses between a camp-fire singalong chorus.

The danger with such events (live or recorded) is that they bring together a number of performers with fashionable appeal but little durability, and in the service of a figure whose ‘greatness’ is ill served by their endeavour. That this failed to happen here, one or two relative misfires notwithstanding, was owing to Cale – who no doubt had the major say in who took part. The outcome was a confirmation of the range and depth in Nico’s songwriting – surely an inspiration for future generations in its sheer imagination and honesty. A most worthwhile evening and, hopefully, a springboard for Cale’s future projects. His live concerts are required listening, and should he ever get round to that symphony…

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