A John Cale live concert is nothing short of an experience. Once you’ve got past the realisation that you’re in the presence of a true legend, a man who has had more influence on modern music than virtually anyone, who was pioneering the classical/rock crossover before rock ‘n’ roll was out of its infancy, you usually notice that being in the audience of the great man is something of an endurance test.
You WILL sit through three and a half hours of feedback and be grateful for it and if (if!) you last the distance, you might get an old Velvet Underground song at the end of it, if you’re lucky and he’s in a particularly good mood. But don’t bet on it, and don’t feel short changed if you don’t.
This makes Circus Live, a two-disc set that weaves, wriggles and feeds back through Cale’s five decade career, a tad more user-friendly than the real thing, as straight away you get rewarded for pressing play with a droned out, haunting and (dare I say it?) improved version of Venus In Furs, heading up a 23-song package that covers virtually his entire career, from the Velvet Underground through his ludicrously prolific solo career of the early to mid ’70s – songs from Fear, Helen Of Troy, Paris 1919 and Slow Dazzle are all present and correct – and brief late ’80s reconciliation with former Velvets bandmate Lou Reed (the Andy Warhol tribute Style It Takes from Songs For Drella) to more recent offerings from 2003’s Hobosapiens and 2005’s Black Acetate.
The trip in time doesn’t go back quite as far as his dabblings in feedback and drone with early experimentalists The Dream Syndicate, except, of course, that the music they pioneered is seared allover this package, from its opening moments to the final 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 a home on a previous album but, like actually being there, that doesn’t really matter as Cale’s constant fiddling with songs that you previously thought were already perfect means that there’s something here for even the most ardent completist to enjoy. He’s one of the few performers from whom “here’s one from my new album” is never a dirty sentence, with everything he touches sounding as fresh, vibrant and timeless as is humanly possible.
Highlights? There are of course, too many to mention. The gentle ballad of Buffalo Ballet, a song too clever to be simple but too beautiful to be forgotten; the juxtaposition of this with a hypnotic, darker and updated Femme Fatale, spliced with Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores, a song he originally tossed away on a B-side before Bauhaus rescued it from obscurity, is in itself a work of pure genius. So is the ethereal Magritte and the funky stomp of Dirty Ass Rock And Roll it leads into.
Hanky Panky Nohow is as sublime and languid here as it has ever been, and Zen is, as you’d expect, meditative and wistful. Possibly the weirdest is his Cale-ised, virtually unrecognisable cover of the Elvis Presley standard Heartbreak Hotel, pared down and sparse until it becomes a paranoid and decaying midnight lament, tail-ended by a frankly surreal ‘thankyuhvermuch’, just in case you didn’t think he had a sense of humour. It doesn’t get much better than this.
If John Cale deserves to be lauded for one thing above all others that he’s achieved over his incredible career it’s his ability to sound as avant garde, as relevant and as challenging today as he ever has. This is a truly remarkable album from a truly remarkable man, a real treat that’s almost as good as actually being there. Any live album that achieves that has really done its work. Brilliant.