HMV (in-store), Oxford, UK
Zodiac, Oxford, UK
Review by Ken Weavers
John Cale is one of those lucky souls for whom conjuring up catchy tunes seems to come as easily as waking up in the morning. A prodigious talent who studied classical music in his youth and played with John Cage, he migrated to New York in the nineteen-sixties, where his involvement with the avant-garde led to his becoming part of Andy Warhol's legendary rock ensemble, the Velvet Underground, alongside the imposing talent of Lou Reed. Since then, he has been admired by those who know his music as one of the finest composers, arrangers, producers and musicians on the rock scene. The number of widely admired albums by other artists, which he has produced or arranged, is vast. Yet he still regards himself as a classical composer, in the rock idiom one might say. His music is hard, real, unsentimental, yet lyrical too, full of lilting melodies as well as disturbing rhythms.
John gave a free appetiser for the night's gig at lunch-time at the HMV shop in Oxford, where he played six songs in the 'acoustic' mode (which seems to mean not quite so loud) before signing copies of the tour promotion album, Circus Live. The immediacy of the performance, quietly unannounced, of the highest quality without any fuss, was typical of the high standards he sets himself. One man who had wandered in by chance said to me, "Who was that? He was good!" John looked well indeed for a man now in his mid-sixties, a bit craggier that in earlier years, while his blonde-red-black-brown hair testified to a man who still cared not a fig for conformity.
The introductory feedback drone, before the musicians even appeared, set the tone for the evening - this was not music for the faint-hearted. When the band began properly, two fast, loud, energetic, beautifully synchronised songs (which I'm sorry to say I couldn't identify) came quickly. We were not watching beginners, that's for sure. A totally revamped "Leaving It Up to You" came next, the hypnotic melody somehow subsumed into new rhythms, and this was to be the pattern - old songs given a new lease of life, a new style of presentation. In "Heartbreak Hotel" John switched from guitar to keyboard, loosening up the previous tightness as he warbled and improvised in his crazy way. New songs "Hey Ray" (one of the night's few disappointments, a song about the evolution of the nineteen-sixties in New York), and "Common Cold" were added. Someone called for "Sister Ray" - John looked quizzical as he dryly responded, "You must be very old." Then we tightened up again with many splendid renditions of songs from some of his best albums, including Vintage Violence, Fear, blackAcetate and others.
John prefers to let the music do the talking in his concerts. He is right that it doesn't need any more, but it makes it very hard to look into his mind and see what kind of person he is. We know he despises sentimentality and drab conventionality. He doesn't smile much, but when he does, one suspects he is sincere. One chink in his armour showed when early on he suddenly looked shocked and disbelieving, almost hurt, at someone in the audience. There had evidently been an unauthorised photograph. Apart from that, one could only stare at his impenetrable face as he concentrated on getting the notes just right. There, one could perhaps discern a subtle smile, not ecstatic, not delirious, but betokening the happiness of a man who loves his work.
The oldies, including yours truly, were finally given a treat in the encore, when John picked up his viola and played the quintessential Velvet Underground song "Venus In Furs" (even older than "Sister Ray"). In the end he blew us a kiss. He seemed to have enjoyed himself.
What more can one say? Only that if you missed it, it's a shame.