It may have been St Patrick’s Day but the Celt rocking it up at the Mean Fiddler was Welsh, not Irish. The legendarily experimental John Cale, ex-Velvet Underground member and collaborator/producer with the likes of Nico, The Stooges, Patti Smith, Nick Drake and Brian Eno, was back in London half way a European tour promoting his new double live album Live Circus.
Though now 65, he showed that he still has the ability (and stamina) to entertain an audience during an extraordinarily varied two-hour set covering most of his eclectic career over the last 40 years. The angst-ridden, confrontational cocaine addict that made Cale unpredictably brilliant in the past has been replaced by a much more mellow persona, but this pensioner is still very much in his prime.
Few musicians have been as influential or as tirelessly innovative in so many styles of music as Cale. Mixing it with psychedelia, proto punk, folk, electronica and classical music, he has pushed the boundaries of avant-garde art rock but is equally at ease performing intimate ballads or gritty rockers, as the enthusiastic crowd saw.
Alternating between different electric and acoustic guitars and keyboards, and ably supported by a three-piece band (who also supplied highly effective backing vocals), Cale was in majestic vocal form. And although you might hear echoes of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, the hypnotically husky power of his voice is as unique as his music-making.
The concert kicked off with the atmospheric keyboard-led Intro Drone, followed by Cale’s almost unrecognizably deconstructed version of Elvis‘s Heartbreak Hotel and the drivingly rhythmic ‘car crash song’ Reading My Mind. Save Us was notable for some mighty drumming from the always impressive Michael Jerome, while the delightful Hey Ray was a humorous but poignant portrait of bohemian New York City life in the sixties.
Other highlights included the gently drifting Big White Cloud, the grungily rocking Dirty Ass Rock ‘n’ Roll, the electronic soundscape of Buffalo Ballet and the powerfully primal Jumbo In The Modernworld (a single released last year). Two encores were performed: Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend (incorporating a fragment of Debussy’s Claire de Lune) and Chorale (a tribute to the famous CBGB’s club in New York).
Sadly there was no viola-playing and no Velvet Underground tracks this night, but you can’t expect the exquisite Venus in Furs at every gig. Cale and his band certainly did enough to satisfy the appreciative audience. Cale will always be known as one of the great cult figures in rock, an acquired taste you could say, appreciated only by more adventurous and discriminating listeners, not to mention many other musicians. And no doubt he wouldn’t have it any other way.