John Cale
Fear Is A Man's Best Friend - John Cale

Live reviews

Cale at the RFH

London 2002-07-13

Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
Review by Ken Clark. Photo: © Gary Spencer

Note: Cale played this concert at the invitation of The Wire magazine, celebrating its 20th anniversary (HW).

At approximately 9:30 Cale walked onstage in an original dramatic dark blue almost new wave leisure suit wide open in the chest area with a dark shirt underneath. The opening act, The Boredoms, had had the near capacity crowd dancing around the stage with their manic drum'n keyboard odyssey. He was carrying a viola and at the far right of the stage another gentleman was sitting behind an array of mixing desks, a personal computer and a guitar. Clearly this was not going to be a typical John Cale concert.

Flyer for this show

The first song was played by Cale accompanying himself on the viola with heavily distorted vocals and noisy distorted sampled sounds throughout. It was clearly about 9/11 and the Wall Street financial scandals woven together in an elliptical and ironic way. Unfortunately there were also clearly technical problems with the overall sound that marred the delivery but the snatches of lyrics that I was perhaps able to discern were certainly provocative and as good as anything he has previously written. I remember talking to a friend who had just seen the "Sabotage Live" concert in 1979 and his shock and delight with the new material. His first song on Saturday night was certainly up on that level with references to the street names around the World Trade Center mixed in with comments like "I'm a very good business man" "Waiting for your blonde" and "Have a wonderful day". This is one song I want to hear again real soon.

Next he played Nico's "Frozen Warnings"; again with distorted samples as background. It was a moving tribute to his deceased former collaborator-muse. "A Dream" followed from the 1990 "Songs for Drella" tribute jointly composed and performed with Lou Reed loosely based on Andy Warhol's diaries. The death-New York-9/11-loss of innocence motif was firmly established and most powerful especially with the stark spoken word piece. One audience member clearly unaware of Cale's repertoire loudly heckled "Are you well" during this recitation, indicating the large number of "The Boredoms" fans who were trying to come to grips with Cale.

The new song he has played live for the past year "She's in Over Her Head" took on new resonance given the other surrounding songs. Strangely during the first few experimental numbers members of the audience, possibly hard-core fans of the opening act "The Boredoms" were leaving in small packs. Sadly as the technical glitches were gradually cleared up, the set then drifted into his previous standard live repertoire. However the unusual sonic tapestry woven underneath it all with samples oddly appropriate to the songs certainly made it fascinating and far from the average Cale concert.

As the set progressed there were still clearly technical problems with all the software running on stage and at one point the gentleman accompanying Cale left the stage. They were also unsuccessfully trying to communicate with each other during the set and one of the stagehands would periodically scamper around quizzically unplugging and reconnecting wires and stuff. The gentleman who was mixing and running the samples finally left the stage for good before the concert was over and Cale did not even announce his name (Adam Green - HW) so there may have been other "issues" as well as the technical ones that the audience were not aware of on the night.

The show clearly is a monster and this may have been the world premier. Personally I hope that he rehearses it more and overcomes the technical quirks. Like "Gordon Liddy Parts I-IX" in the early 1980s, he has successfully merged released and unreleased material into a common thread that transcends all of the individual pieces. I went to the Royal Festival Hall expecting the same set with a few new songs but what I got, albeit with several technical faults was a superior concert experience.


  1. New song (I would not dare to hazard a guess at the title of this one): Cale's take on 9/11 and the Wall Street scandals (title of this one might be: Waiting For Blonde - HW)
  2. Frozen Warnings: Poignant Nico cover, sublime treatment
  3. A Dream: Andy Warhol's soliloquy given further resonance in context of 9/11 and Nico's lament
  4. She's In Over Her Head: New song given new life in current song sequence
  5. On A Wedding Anniversary: The problems with the samples began to clear and Eno like subtleties became apparent in the mix
  6. Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night
  7. Cordoba: Excellent use of samples with street sounds, ragtime piano which gave way to flamenco guitar providing suitable atmosphere, possibly more NYC street vibe
  8. Sold Motel: great beat box sample and some electric guitar from the gentleman stage right subsequently abandoned before the song was over
  9. Things to Do in Denver when You're Dead: new material, played live for the past year, possibly with some new lyrics (?) as the piece ended an unidentified male voice could be heard reading the Lord's Prayer which carried on underneath the next song:
  10. Ghost Story: great wind samples and the "Lords Prayer" merged into an unknown female voice, I could not discern what language or what the context of her words, it was all a bit like Brian Eno and David Byrne's 1980 album "My Live in the Bush of Ghosts"
  11. Set Me Free
  12. The Endless Plain of Fortune: This ended with one of the most interesting samples of all, which carried throughout the next song. An American scientist talked about biological diseases saying that by the middle of the last century they had been virtually wiped out but were held by the military, of course anthrax was mentioned adding to the overall themes of the concert
  13. Andalucia: The scientist talking about anthrax was mixed in with small children happily playing as sharp accompaniment to this love song
  14. Heartbreak Hotel: Excellent use of spooky horror samples much like the version with Eno on "June 1, 1974".
  15. Style It Takes: Again Cale gave his usual rap about the song being about the art world in New Year in the early 1960s, "those really were the good old days"
  16. Fear: After this there was barely enough applause with earlier desertions, a general feeling of confusion with those not intimately familiar with his work to merit it and yet he came back with a strong encore to validate the concert.
  17. Hallelujah: Cale had bravely soldiered through an energetic and challenging set with technical glitches galore and finished with Leonard Cohen's uplifting hymn ending a fine evenings' imperfect but enjoyable entertainment

© 1999- Hans Werksman