03 October 2012
A long unbroken howl of electric distortion announces John Cale’s call to attention like a kind of religious mantra, a meditative “aum”. His audience stands to receive him as he walks from backstage onto his altar by the electric piano and checks his notes before knocking out the melody of his overture.
“It’s like a cathedral,” he announces as the echo on his microphone hangs around between songs, and despite the Button Factory’s intimate setting it is a bit. There is a sort of formality about Cale. He doesn’t interact with the audience, but sticks to his catalogue of songs like a priest does to his sermons.
However there is no sense of conservatism about his music. He has clearly gotten past the sound he helped pioneer in 1967 when he got together with Lou Reed and Andy Warhol to co-found the iconic Velvet Underground. Many genres are represented in his set, from the Hip-hop infused Hey Ray to abstract 80s synth-music such as Satellite Walk. There’s even a lean towards contemporary pop with the Danger Mouse produced I Wanna Talk 2 U from his latest album Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood.
With Helen of Troy he picks up his electric guitar, playing a song with an irresistible rhythm that proves to be a real crowd-pleaser. But it’s with Whaddya Mean By That, a song with a chilled-out groove and a memorable hook that he really resonates. It feels like a treasure in a set heavily constructed from experimentation and genre-exploration, as if he had momentarily found his true voice with that one song.
Cale himself switches between the keyboard and the electric and acoustic guitars while being backed up by a three-man band throughout. His bass-player deserves special acknowledgement for his incredible versatility from playing genuine heavy metal bass at times to the funk and borderline abstraction found elsewhere in the set. The electric guitarist does some nice solos when called upon, but he often gets lost under the tape accompaniment that gives the performance body.
The kind of detachment John Cale practices can be alienating. After he finishes his set with Nookie Wood he steps away from his altar and despite the chanting and praying from the flock he doesn’t return for an encore, at which point the long-haired guy in front of me blessed the stage by making the sign of the finger, and we all go in peace.