REVIEW: John Cale (2018-1964): A Futurespective at the Barbican

John Cale
Photo credit: Mark Allan /Barbican

John Cale (2018-1964): A Futurespective
(Barbican. 9 March 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

On his 76th birthday John Cale shows no sign of slowing down or offering concessions to either the pop audience or the avant-garde. The first night of two ‘Futurespective’ concerts at the Barbican was a two-hour spectacular showcasing the breathtaking range of his input and output over five decades in music, with wholly reimagined selections from his string of classic 1970s albums, Vintage Violence, Paris 1919, Fear, and Helen of Troy, smatterings from the eighties and noughties, and more recent punches that reflect his continuing interest in raucous minimalism, orchestral and electronic textures, deep literary allusiveness and gut-punching emotional reveal.

The concert began with a slow, complex ambience recalling La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, a key reference for Cale’s practice in developing the drone textures that characterised his involvement on amplified viola in a band called The Velvet Underground. The influence and impact of that group is not something John Cale is unaware of, but the birthday concert largely avoided that familiar territory in favour of representing the wide range of his work since.

Cate Le Bon and John Cale
Photo credit:  Mark Allan/ Barbican

The excitement of the event was amplified by guest appearances, with a huge favourite, Cate Le Bon, who kind of sings like Nico and plays guitar like the Magic Band, creator of odd-rock masterpieces like Crab Day, who joined on acoustic guitar to duet on Buffalo Ballet and Amsterdam. It seemed like a missed opportunity to do All Tomorrow’s Parties. DJ/sound artist Actress contributed his slick electronic sound on Over Her Head, Magritte, and Chums of Dumpty, but he also felt under-utilised.

One of the hallmarks of John Cale’s considerable production experience is his use of strings, and the London Contemporary Orchestra seemed like a perfect fit, being the leading outfit of its kind specialising in left-field crossover collaboration. As the concert moved along their contribution was more integrated and important in the sound world, but it still felt like a band-plus gig rather than completely realised as a large-scale (Large-Cale) orchestration. Similarly, the House Gospel Choir came on and off, but added a great emotional appeal to some of Cale’s most treasured, pained works, especially Half Past France, reconfigured from one of Cale’s most beloved chamber-pop albums, Paris 1919.

The songs are a real mixture. Some are achingly melodic, others are harder to love. The Barbican’s interview podcast asked Cale about his attitude to love songs. Cale wasn’t sure he’d ever quite nailed it, and cited a recent song The Story of Blood as maybe his best attempt. But his beautiful paean Close Watch (from 1975’s Helen of Troy) is one of the most tender and thoughtful thwarted love songs ever written, and in a unique new treatment it was never more painfully realised than in performance with the LCO strings.

It was a long wait for a Velvets song. Waiting For The Man rested on the two-chord vamp without those Lou Reed chord changes (“He’s never early…”) that make it good. Which is weird because in many of Cale’s own compositions, for example Dying On The Vine and Hatred, there was a predominant country vibe, and then he introduced some spectacular chord change and an epic chorus. While John Cale always deferred to Lou Reed as a poet, the literary writing is always his mainstay: you can hear the Dylan and Cohen influences in everything Cale does, not just in the country-influenced songs he plays, but in the detail of songs like E is missing which “is about Ezra Pound” and references Perec’s novel La Disparition famously written without the letter E.

Guitarist Dustin Boyer played excitingly discordant guitar solos that recalled the disruptive spirit of the Velvets. Deantoni Parks brought the important contemporary sonic texture of electronic percussion but also driving straight-ahead rock playing and the intense funky feel of Talking Heads. Joey Maramba helped set up the pop-avant texture starting with bowing the electric bass then locking it down throughout.

Held-back violence is a cornerstone of John Cale’s work, which at times has not been held back at all. Aside from ripping the heads off chickens as a performer in the ‘70s, as a musician John Cale is characteristically raw, brutal and frank. In Waiting for the Man he let his 1970s persona free reign screaming to no-one in particular “Shut up, Shut the fuck up!”

As much as he and Lou Reed had differences, Reed said of Cale “Music ran out of him like water down a mountain.” 1982’s album Music For A New Society was improvised. When asked by the BBC World Service where the raw inspiration came from, he said: “It’s the usual teenage stuff: standing in front of a mirror holding a razor blade up to your neck. That’s just the same thing that happens to a lot of teens.”

It’s not quite the same now. The slowed-down, chorally enriched arrangement of Leaving It Up To You re-imagines the original’s post-punk guitar-lick led song in a more considered Leonard Cohen-esque treatment. Lines like “I know we can be happy like Sharon Tate!” that he spat out at the height of his punk-era hockey-mask-wearing chicken-head-biting-off identity, have a compelling ambivalence. More than ever, we’re not out to shock you, just to make you think.

Before the show some thoughtful fans provided us with glow-sticks and instructions. Approaching the encores, we in the audience sang Patty and Mildred J. Hill’s popular 1893 song ‘Good Morning to All’ with its more familiar birthday-related lyrics, waving our glow sticks in what was a rather lovely sight to behold. John Cale was remarkably good-natured about it, conducting the House Gospel Choir into a richly unrehearsed cadence. He even quipped about celebrating again in another 76 years. Tickets are not yet on sale, but it should just about coincide with the conclusion of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.

John Cale – set list, Barbican 9 March 2018

Over Her Head (Actress) (HoboSapiens, 2003)
Dying On The Vine (Artificial Intelligence, 1985)
Hedda Gabler - Choir (orch) (Sabotage/Live, 1979)
E Is Missing (5 Tracks, 2003)
Helen – horns (Helen of Troy, 1975)
Big White Cloud – choir (orch) (Vintage Violence, 1970)
Half Past France (orch) (Paris 1919, 1973)
Leaving It Up To You (Helen of Troy, 1975)
Magritte – Actress (orch) (HoboSapiens, 2003)
Buffalo Ballet (Cate) (Fear, 1974)
Mr Wilson (orch) (Slow Dazzle, 1975)
Close Watch (orch) (Helen of Troy, 1975)
Chums of Dumpty (orch) Actress (5 Tracks, 2003)
Amsterdam (Cate) (orch) (Vintage Violence, 1970)
Villa Albani (orch) (Caribbean Sunset, 1984)
Waiting For The Man
Pretty People – choir
Hatred – choir (orch) (Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, 2012)


Emily – Choir (Fear, 1974)

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