Ex-Velvet revisits the dark places of his astonishing solo career

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Slow Dazzle

John Cale

THE SHEPHERD’S BUSH EMPIRE, LONDON

Monday December 15, 2003

Rescued from his latest career cul-de-sac by an EMI Radiohead associate with clout and taste, Cale’s unlikely major label comeback has attracted a relatively sparse crowd tonight. Perhaps word hasn’t yet got around that last year’s 5 Tracks EP and HoboSapiens album saw him applying new technology and post-9/11 paranoia to the abiding concerns of his greatest work: states of loss and limbo, exile and the lonely human soul. So Cale carefully structures this 20-song set to reveal the secret, interwoven consistencies of his astonishing career.

Playing London with a full band for the first time since he gave a back-alley beating to his songbook on this same stage in 1996, he steers clear of such self-destruction tonight, instead offering focus and too much restraint?the subdued concentration of a 61-year-old recalled to the big leagues, nervous of fucking up. Trim-haired in a black boiler suit, although his long fingers splay over his keyboard like Nosferatu’s, the life-saving healthiness of Cale today no longer permits true fear or excess. Instead, he concentrates on ransacking and rearranging his back catalogue, songs standing in for psychosis.

Launching into the brutal “Evidence” (from ’79’s Sabotage) then the muffled pop of “Dancing Undercover” (from ’96’s Walking On Locusts), even tossing in a metallically menacing, crowd-shocking revival of the Velvets’ “Venus in Furs”, the set seems random at first. But its coherence, with new tunes shedding light on old, is gradually unveiled. Early ’70s evocations of exile “Andalucia” and “Ship Of Fools” bracket HoboSapiens’ 21st century dislocation epic “Caravan”. “Set Me Free”, written in the wake of the doomed Velvets reunion, is stripped to acoustic strums, and 5 Tracks’ eerie “E Is Missing” becomes a blasted dirge, as Cale moves onto more personal pain. HoboSapiens’ semi-classical, majestic “Magritte” is carved open with flashes of Memphis guitar, then brilliantly paired with its distant cousin “Paris 1919”, itself reupholstered into rasping, speeding rock.

The theoretical dazzle of Cale’s career reconstruction doesn’t, though, replace the old high-wire excitement for the considerable crowd exiting before the encores. Their loss, as 1974’s New York noir “Gun” sees him, though still shy of true abandon, at least simulate savagery. Snuffling like a hog, he shrieks, “I’ll go for your neck with a chicken wi-i-ilRRRE!”, over the stalking beat of chopping-block drums, before he spits and whooshes like a death-train stopping. More barks and snarls accompany the lonely terror of “Cable Hogue”?”you can’t leave me here, can you?” Then it’s “I Keep A Close Watch”, the threateningly tender, generation-defining No 1 ballad that never was, one more buried landmark in this secretly towering career. Cale disposes of it quickly, blows us a kiss, and is gone.