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John Cale, Royal Festival Hall, London, March 5th 2010

March 7, 2010

John Cale’s Paris 1919, released in 1973, was the first of his albums that I bought and listened to incessantly. I’d heard his stuff with the Velvet Underground and got the album ‘sound unheard’ in about 1981. The lush orchestration, literary lyrics and variety of styles were not what I’d expected,  But what I did hear was captivating – a ‘grown-up’ record with half-snatches of images, musical phrases and other tunes, both ‘pop’ and classical.

Its French connections and allusions to a traditional England were intriguing, and songs like Half Past France sounded like a parallel soundtrack to my life as I left home to travel around Europe for the first time on my own, feeling apprehensive but excited ‘somewhere between Dunkirk and Paris’. For that reason it’s the John Cale album I feel closest to, but it’s not my favourite – that worthless honour goes to Music For A New Society, his haunting and harrowing 1983 masterpiece that is currently and inexplicably unavailable.

Over the years I’ve seen Cale play solo, with a small band and with a large loud rock band, so this was another new experience to see him with an orchestra and band. In fact, ‘orchestra’ is a misnomer, as they were just strings and brass, which is not quite the same thing. I’d heard some soundchecking earlier in the day and appreciated that it must be quite a challenge to get the live sound just right with that combination of plugged and unplugged.

As Cale took to the stage in a dapper relaxed suit and the ensemble launched into A Child’s Christmas In Wales, my qualms about the sound were far from allayed. The electric band were too quiet, perhaps through fear of drowning out the strings, but I wanted to hear more from them – particularly the drums, played on the original album by the excellent Richie Hayward of Little Feat (while his compadre Lowell George contributed some fine guitar-playing to the album). Orchestrated it may be, but Paris 1919 is at heart still a rock ‘n’ roll album, and rock ‘n’ roll albums should have drums, bass and guitar. End of. This confusion is far from new: Reprise Records marketed Cale’s previous album, The Academy In Peril, as its first classical release.

Anyway, back to the show. The playing and singing was just fine, despite my reservations about the mix. In fact, the sound improved as the show went on. Hanky Panky Nohow was very sweet, as it was originally, and Endless Plain Of Fortune was a huge majestic beast of noise, with the band getting their sonic dues and meshing forcefully with the insistent strings. Very good indeed.

Andalucia, perhaps the prettiest song on the album, was performed beautifully, and then I had a shock – they were playing the opening strains of the song Paris 1919. But, but, but…? What happened to Macbeth? The one serious head-banging stomp on the album, with Hayward’s wild drums driving the whole shebang into glorious oblivion? Oh, I see. They weren’t going to play it. In fact, they played it last of all, following Antarctica Starts Here. Now that was a serious mistake. If you going to perform an album, play it in the order it was released. I’m not after it being replicated note for note – I’d rather stay at home, listen to the record and save myself forty-odd quid – but if you mess around with the order, you mess around with people’s memories of the album as a whole, to no good effect.

As it turns out, Graham Greene, Half Past France and Antarctica Starts Here were all performed really well, but the dying strains of that final track, with Cale half whispering, ‘Antarctica starts here…’ should be the album’s close. In my own fevered imagination, this is appropriate: the album’s as much about old England as it is about France, and it suggests that, for all the ghastly strictures and hidebound horrors of an England that was in 1973 fast disappearing, the future was likely to be even more bleak. That’s Cale’s miserabilism for you, and it’s the aspect of his character I find most compelling. ‘Might never happen,’ says the cheery Englishman. ‘On the contrary,’ says Mr Cale, ‘it will happen and it will destroy you…’

They trooped off-stage for a short interval and we’re faced with the usual problem on these occasions when an old album is played in its entirety – what do you do for the rest of the evening? The album runs not much beyond 32 minutes, so do you carry on with a greatest hits show or display some of your new wares? The latter course was taken by Sonic Youth when they reprised Daydream Nation at the Roundhouse a few years ago, but the suspicion then was that they were noticeably more enthusiastic about playing the new (and very fine) material that most of the audience in truth didn’t particularly care for.

Cale went for the greatest hits option, with some numbers just for him and the band – an angular Femme Fatale, the wonderfully grim Heartbreak Hotel and the ever-appropriate Fear – and the last few  numbers for full band and orchestra, topped off by a very moody and magnificent Hedda Gabler. I enjoyed the evening a lot and to hear these songs in context was a real treat, but, oh, let’s play them in the right order next time, please.

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