A John Cale live concert is nothing short of anexperience. Once you’ve got past the realisation thatyou’re in the presence of a true legend, a man who hashad more influence on modern music than virtuallyanyone, who was pioneering the classical/rockcrossover before rock’n’roll was out of its infancy,you usually notice that being in the audience of thegreat man is something of an endurance test.
You WILLsit through three and a half hours of feedback and begrateful for it and if (if!) you last the distance,you might get an old Velvet Underground song atthe end of it, if you’re lucky and he’s in aparticularly good mood. But don’t bet on it, and don’tfeel short changed if you don’t.
This makes Circus Live, a two-disc set that weaves,wriggles and feeds back through Cale’s five decadecareer, a tad more user-friendly than the real thing,as straight away you get rewarded for pressing playwith a droned out, haunting and (dare I say it?)improved version of Venus in Furs, heading up a23-song package that covers virtually his entirecareer, from the Velvet Underground through his ludicrouslyprolific solo career of the early to mid 70s – songsfrom Fear, Helen Of Troy, Paris 1919 and Slow Dazzleare all present and correct – and brief late 80sreconciliation with former Velvets bandmate LouReed (the Andy Warhol tribute Style It Takes fromSongs For Drella) to more recent offerings from 2003’sHobosapiens and 2005’s Black Acetate.
The trip in time doesn’t go back quite as far ashis dabblings in feedback and drone with earlyexperimentalists The Dream Syndicate, except, ofcourse, that the music they pioneered is seared allover this package, from its opening moments to thefinal track on disc two, titled simply Outro Drone.
Apart from the two otherwise unnamed Drones,there’s nothing on Circus Live that doesn’t have ahome on a previous album but, like actually beingthere, that doesn’t really matter as Cale’s constantfiddling with songs that you previously thought werealready perfect means that there’s something here foreven the most ardent completist to enjoy. He’s one ofthe few performers from whom “here’s one from my newalbum” is never a dirty sentence, with everything hetouches sounding as fresh, vibrant and timeless as ishumanly possible.
Highlights? There are of course, too many tomention. The gentle ballad of Buffalo Ballet, a songtoo clever to be simple but too beautiful to beforgotten; the juxtaposition of this with a hypnotic,darker and updated Femme Fatale, spliced withRosegarden Funeral Of Sores, a song he originallytossed away on a B-side before Bauhaus rescuedit from obscurity, is in itself a work of pure genius.So is the ethereal Magritte and the funky stomp ofDirty Ass Rock And Roll it leads into.
Hanky PankyNohow is as sublime and languid here as it has everbeen, and Zen is, as you’d expect, meditative andwistful. Possibly the weirdest is his Caleised,virtually unrecognisable cover of the ElvisPresley standard Heartbreak Hotel, pared down andsparse until it becomes a paranoid and decayingmidnight lament, tail-ended by a frankly surreal’thankyuhvermuch’, just in case you didn’t think hehad a sense of humour. It doesn’t get much better thanthis.
If John Cale deserves to be lauded for one thingabove all others that he’s achieved over hisincredible career it’s his ability to sound as avantgarde, as relevant and as challenging today as he everhas. This is a truly remarkable album from a trulyremarkable man, a real treat that’s almost as good asactually being there. Any live album that achievesthat has really done its work. Brilliant.