John Cale

John Cale is a legend in the music business, having been a founder member of the seminal 1960s band the Velvet Underground. However, now aged 70, he is in no mood for nostalgia and spends most of the evening promoting his new album ‘Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood’ and other recent work.

Although largely ignored and derided during their late 1960s existence, the Velvet Underground are now acclaimed as one of the greatest influences on music, being a major influence on punk and experimental music. Cale has never sought the limelight like his more famous ex-VU colleague, Lou Reed, but he has maintained a steady and acclaimed career since. While Reed is the best known VU member, Cale was the one who really made them avant-garde, with his seminal viola playing and arrangements. Since the VU, Cale has made many solo and collaboration albums (for example, with Brian Eno, as well as Lou Reed) and has produced the work of many artists, from Patti Smith to the Stooges.

John Cale

Tonight’s gig is fairly low key (not even a merchandising table) with Cale playing in the small downstairs library room at the HMV, with a three man band. Parallels with small early VU gigs could well be drawn. Cale comes on with his band to a recorded track of feedback noise and heads straight for his unpretentious single keyboard at the front of the stage. Inevitably there is curiosity about how this veteran musician will now look and sound. It turns out he has worn extremely well, has a startling shock of white hair and has maintained the handsome sculptured features. He still looks a pretty tough guy. More importantly, he is still one heck of a musician and his voice sounds better than ever.

He launches straight into ‘Captain Hook’, a lengthy piece with long instrumental passages played on his keyboard. He spends most of the evening at the keyboard, only moving onto electric and acoustic guitars mid-show. Perhaps disappointingly, there is no viola tonight. His unique and dramatic viola playing, such as on the VU’s ‘Venus in Furs’ was always very striking.

John Cale

Not only are there no VU songs tonight, but there is little from his earlier albums. Rather bravely, Cale has obviously decided that the current gigs will centre on ‘the now’, with much of the material being taken from the critically well-received new album and his 2011 EP ‘Extra Playful’. The gig seems rather slow to really get going and plods along at a steady pace, with Cale saying little to the audience, apart from announcing song titles. However, the band really gel together as a unit and you can see real communication between them, if not so much with the audience. The style varies enormously and the band can rock as well as getting pretty funky. Occasionally someone shouts out a request, like ‘Pablo Picasso’, all of which are ignored. Cale knows he has a legacy, but he constantly wants to move on and do new work. He doesn’t want to play ‘greatest hits’ or to falsely be a crowd pleaser.

It is only really towards the end that the gig really starts to take off, with the band getting pretty fiery and the audience appreciation going beyond polite applause. The highlight of the evening is probably the track ‘The Hanging’, taken from the 2011 EP. This has a terrific groove and eerie guitar and keyboard effects and it starts to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. The show ends with the dramatic title track ‘Nookie Wood’, featuring a bowed bass guitar, then Cale leaves the stage.

John Cale

The audience noisily demand an encore and Cale and the band re-emerge to play ‘Dirty-Ass Rock ‘n’ Roll’, a raucous number from the 1970’s album ‘Slow Dazzle’, with Cale playing Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano and really hollering and brilliantly synchronising his piano with the guitar. With another wave and a ‘thanks to Birmingham’, a legend leaves the stage.

Photographs and review by John Bentley

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