I took my daughter Lauren to see John Cale perform this evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall. In addition to a stripped-down trio of drums-bass-guitar he was accompanied by a selection of musician’s from UCLA’s student orchestra. The concert’s conceit was a live orchestral performance of Cale’s early-1972 album “Paris 1919.” I have to hand it to Cale, who performed with panache and aplomb. He must find it slightly surreal to be playing material approximately 40 years old. On the other hand, he should revel in his good fortune to be playing anything at all. Always a critical favorite, Cale never has been a commercial success. It is much to his credit he was able to develop and produce this kind of a show.
Cale’s biggest problem is the expectations of his fans. I saw the Velvet Underground on several occasions, most notably in 1968 at the auditorium of San Diego City College, when both Cale and Nico still were in the group. For many, everything he’s done since is derivative of that era. This must annoy him tremendously By consensus his best work was the trio of early-1970s records he did for Warner Bros., possibly extending into the material he then did for Island Records. Although hit-and-miss, some of his later work is strong; one of my personal favorites is the 1979 record “Sabotage/Live,” which I saw him perform at the Catamaran Hotel in San Diego (of all places). Cale never was a rock-and-roller. I think it fairer to characterize his work as “art rock,” or even “cabaret rock.” I have met him on several occasions, typically when he was between record deals and looking for an advance for a record that would be prestigious, but difficult to recoup.
Cale’s singing was vigorous and well-intonated. I was impressed by his musicianship. He didn’t just stand there and sing, he actively played keyboards, and guitar on several numbers, though with less success. I wish he would have played electric viola at least once. Cale both leads and carries the band. The orchestral arrangements, which he undoubtedly collaborated in writing, were excellent. Having said that, the house mix was mushy and lacked dynamic modulation, so it wasn’t clear exactly what the orchestra was doing for much of the time. The brass was way too loud; there was no differentiation among the strings; Neal Stulberg, the conductor, persisted in engaging in distracting body contortions throughout. Cale would have been much better served by a smaller force of, say, a string quartet. That not only would have opened up the sound, but also created the opportunity for more interactive, experimental arrangements.
While he played “Paris 1919” all the way through, the simple fact of the matter is that only half of the songs on the album are any good. Those that are very good, such as “The Endless Plain of Fortune,” were spell-binding. After an intermission, he returned to play a second set of additional material. Mostly this comprised unidentifiable songs from his vast oeuvre. One exception was “Heartbreak Hotel,” where Cale displayed great facility for manipulating vocoder and loop technology in real time, and triggering beats and samples. I also was impressed by his version of Nico’s song “The Fairest of the Seasons.” The audience was 50% original fans and 50% attendees half their age, who have picked up on the Cale art-school vibe. The program somewhat breathlessly advised, “Laurel resting isn’t in the picture for the super-fit squash fanatic whose energy levels are those of a man half his age.” Well, despite that, both Lauren and I had an enjoyable evening, and I congratulate Cale on his success.