Live Music + Gig Reviews

John Cale @ Royal Festival Hall, London

5 March 2010

John Cale

John Cale

John Cale is a true legend, a man who has spent more than five decades criss-crossing the lines between classical music and rock, tearing up the rule books for both as he goes and rewriting them to suit himself.

Once a student of La Monte Young, a member of the hugely influential Dream Syndicate, he went on to form the Velvet Underground – a band so ahead of their time they didn’t get the credit they deserved until nearly two decades after they split.

After such an auspicious start to his career, it’s to Cale’s credit that the solo material he produced after ending his collaboration with Lou Reed is held in just as high regard – in particular his 1973 album Paris 1919, his third solo effort, which is his best known and most accessible work. Its popularity has endured to such an extent that the album was remastered and re-released in 2006 and tonight he recreates it in full at the Royal Festival Hall, backed by a rock band and The Heritage Orchestra.

The RFH is the perfect venue for Cale. Cultured and modern, equally at home with a bassoon or bass guitar, both the concert hall and its audience know that the last few decades have blurred the line between classical and rock in a way Cale realised was possible long before most.

His legacy is everywhere. Not only in the spread of ages apparent in the audience – some are older than him, others barely old enough to be out at night without their parents – but also in the perfectly chosen support. Patrick Wolf is perhaps the only other man to see the rock potential of the viola.

As Wolf introduces or reacquaints the audience with the best of his work, including superb renditions of Damaris and the unashamed homage Paris, he is almost embarrassingly gushing about how honoured he is to be on the same stage. Other musical heroes of today pay their own tribute from the audience, including James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers and Blaine Harrison of Mystery Jets.

Cale, of course, would never show as much emotion as Wolf but he does interact with the audience tonight, introducing himself and the band before launching to a full and full-bloodied recreation of his most famous solo work. Of course, it works wonderfully, reminding us of how much we have to thank him for. If the Velvet Underground inspired every indie guitar band who came after them, it can equally be argued that music such as this gave us (for better or worse) shoegaze and Spiritualized.

The album-rerun-by-numbers complete, he leaves the stage for a short interval and returns to offer up gems from elsewhere in his career, including Amsterdam from his first solo album Vintage Violence, the by now familiar live standard Femme Fatal/Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores medley, and Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend.

He finishes, of course, on a song he cannot have recorded without knowing he would never be allowed to finish a performance on anything else again: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas lyrics he first set to music on his 1992 album Fragments Of A Rainy Season.

These live recreations of classic albums seem to be coming at us more and more frequently these days. In a world where every song that might pique our curiosity is available at the click of a mouse, seeing them performed by the musicians who wrote them are our moments to treasure. These songs belong to history.

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John Cale @ Royal Festival Hall, London