For an artist with roots in the world of avant-garde composition and experimental performance, John Cale’s music as a solo artist has often veered closer in spirit to classic rock conservatism. He has never veered as far into the abstract or surreal as Scott Walker or David Sylvian. Yet, as this frequently compelling show made clear – such a view misrepresents Cale’s vibrant and informed musical generalism. A gifted producer, writer, multi-instrumentalist and singer, Cale is an exceptional polymath.
Perhaps for that reason, he always seems fascinated by sound in the broadest sense. For every flourish of borderline-cliche rock guitar in these performances (and there are some riffs that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Lenny Kravitz album), there’s a sudden and unexpected flash of dissonance or a brilliantly constructed groove. His music remains full of fascinating tensions between spontaneity and organisation and between familiarity and weirdness.
At 70, Cale looks rather resplendent in a shocking pink jacket, with upturned collar, cravat and disorderly white hair. He also has a somewhat stern demeanour, racing through the set list with vigorous haste and announcing the songs in staccato bursts with little exposition or engagement with the audience (he is nevertheless unfailingly polite throughout). At one point at which some unlikely farce (an acoustic guitar fails to work and a stage assistant repeatedly drops Cale’s guitar strap) provides levity, he actually looks like he might attack his sound and tech people. Between songs, he appears curiously scatty, fiddling with various scraps of paper attached to his keyboard that are presumably serving as prompts.
Cale’s last visit to London produced a show that lovingly recreated his revered Paris 1919 album in collaboration with the Heritage Orchestra. That project felt a little staid and forced, but Cale sounds re-energised and liberated here. Much like Radiohead on their current tour, Cale is very much focusing on new material for this tour, drawing liberally from new album Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood and from last year’s Extra Playful EP. Velvet Underground classics are conspicuous by their absence. In the live environment, this new music feels a little less studied and self-conscious – with the band exploring some deep and enjoyably mesmeric grooves. Cale’s voice seems in fine form too, delivering the songs with sharpness, clarity and relish. Highlights from this generous selection include the angular, propulsive Scotland Yard, the precipitous atmospheres of December Rains and the maniacally satirical paen to the ’60s in Hey Ray (‘The Russians Are Coming!’ ‘No, they’re not!’). Whaddya Mean By That displays his more thoughtful, melodic side. His band are consistently meticulous and exacting in their approach throughout.
Cale’s visits into his substantial, mostly underrated back catalogue are both daring and shrewd. Captain Hook, an elaborate epic from the now criminally hard to find Sabotage album (a 1979 live album of then all new material) makes for a dramatic, lucid and compelling opener. The angular, gritty funk rock of Helen of Troy, complete with an additional crude chant, remains stark and zany. Guts is one of the best examples of his infectious, sophisticated pop songs, in equal parts part of the new wave and influenced by show tunes. Perhaps best of all is a modernist revamp of the excellent Satellite Walk.
Towards the end of the show, Cale and the band explore some protracted jams, not least on the surprising encore that splices together Dirty Ass Rock N’ Roll and Pablo Picasso (Cale produced the Modern Lovers original and later recorded the song himself). In spite of Cale’s seriousness, the band seem to be thoroughly enjoying the experience of branching out. Earlier in the set, Cale delivers his new single, the Danger Mouse produced I Wanna Talk 2 U. It would be harder to find a more accessible pop song less likely to top the download charts. These two moments, poles apart, seem to sum up all the contradictions in Cale’s long and wonderful career.