Sunday, March 7, 2010

John Cale plays Paris 1919

Marketing men hit on a great ploy when they decided to reawaken the moribund careers of legendary artists by promoting '40-year anniversary' reunions, or cleverer still, one-off performances of complete albums. The Zombies did it a couple of years back to fantastic effect with 'Odyssey and Oracle', their near legendary Sixties 'lost album' which became a hit after their break-up and which was therefore never performed live at the time.

It doesn't actually need to be an anniversary now: the reformed band just picks an album and markets a tour around the promise of playing it in its entirety. The idea, I suppose, is that it becomes an 'event' and we'll all be more prepared to buy a ticket than if it was simply going to a regular performance of 'greatest hits and other favourite medleys'. Latest, in what has become a rather long-line of performers milking the idea, is John Cale: Welsh-wizard and alumni of the Velvet Underground. Cale, along with the Heritage Orchestra and three-piece band rolled out the 1973 released Paris 1919 at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday last.

Why Cale should have picked to perform Paris 1919 as his oeuvre somewhat defeats me. Probably it was his best seller. It wasn't his strongest single album by any means though. In fact, if truth be told, none of Cale's albums could be called classics. He's a man, if there is one, who benefits more from a greatest hits collection. I met a US serviceman at the Lakenheath base on Saturday who admitted that he'd never been as bored as when at a Cale solo gig a few years back. I have to listen on vinyl rather than CD as at least you have to rise from the torpor to turn the thing over and make a concrete decision to hear it through completely.

The RFH was packed anyway so the marketing worked. Interestingly, the crowd was multi-generational. Normally at these reunions or replay gigs what you get is grey-haired nostalgia seekers with a smattering of curious off-spring wanting to see what 'dad' was into. I went to see Stackridge at the 100 Club just before Christmas and that was like re-living an early 70's Friday night at the Student Union; the only difference was the price of a beer and the folically-challenged nature of the audience.

Cale opened with track one: 'Child's Christmas in Wales'. Though the title is evocative of Dylan Thomas the words aren't, unless general obtuseness counts. He likes Thomas though. Later he'll do a great version of 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' and on other occasions I've heard him sing the Rev. Eli Jenkins’s Prayer from 'Under Milk Wood'.

He follows the tracking order of the album faithfully, and pretty much the original arrangements. There are some flat tracks on the LP and so there are some flat moments tonight but the faithful (and that definitely describes the audience)whoop, holla and clap with deference and even enthusiasm. The title track sticks out as does Macbeth. Half Past France actually works much better live than on the original. Antarctic Starts Here is as anti-climatic a finish live as it is on the original vinyl.

Being only a about 40 minutes long, Cale is bound to comes back on after a short break and give us a second half of 'hits'. The set lifts off. He plays his pre-punk take on Elvis' 'Heartbreak Hotel', belts out Thomas's. 'Do Not Go Gentle', and tips his hat to material he did with Nico amongst other old 'favs'.

Unlike most Welshmen he's not too garrulous on stage. It would have added to the experience if he'd reached out a bit and communicated.

Worth going to? Yes, on balance. He is an inventive and iconic performer and rock 'n' roll would have been so much poorer without Cale's input, especially his early work. He's worth seeing if only for that. A bonus was that the ticket price was under £30. Not bad at all in market where you're often having to pay twice that to see the more fashionable bands. I don't think the US serviceman would have been bored with this one, even if you didn't come out with that elated feeling you get when really uplifted by hear a favourite 'oldie' re-performed.

I once had dinner with Cale. It was in Tel Aviv of all places. The British Council had brought him out as part of their cultural mission and he was to play a small auditorium in the city. The Council was short-staffed that week. I was there doing a consultancy project for them. They needed someone to host their guest at dinner on his first night in town; would I 'help out and take him out?' Under duress (ho ho!) I agreed and spent a most convivial evening with the great man. We talked about the Land of our Fathers; though ashamedly I couldn't talk with him in our national language (Cale didn't speak English until he was 7). Fantastic stories about his early life, the madness of trying to produce Happy Mondays and his life in the US. I suspect I heard more than I would have done if he'd felt I was interviewing him rather than chewing the 'vegetarian' fat.

If I'd had an opportunity to chat on this occasion I 'd have asked him when he was going to play 'Slow Dazzle' in its entirety, Now that was a much stronger LP than Paris 1919 and one I can play on CD ...

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