I was a bit surprised at how few people there were in attendance on walking in to take my place in the audience for John Cale at The Junction last night – I mean, surely this man is cast-iron rock royalty? He was in no less than The Velvet Underground, wasn’t he? Supplying all those rigorously horrible viola and organ noises and bowel-looseningly monolithic bass parts on those first two albums? He produced The Stooges and The Modern Lovers for God’s sake! He produced bloody Horses!
But then this formidable Welsh master of uncomforting sounds has also always seemed to have had a refreshingly short attention span when it comes to his own past work, scything his way through styles and genres and fashions in a way that ought to embarrass his contemporaries in the rock genius stakes like Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. It becomes pretty clear pretty early at this show that anyone’s who turned up to hear what I’ll rather inaccurately describe as “the hits” is going to be disappointed. This is in the main a brisk and clipped run-through of material that he’s released only in the last year or so, and while his distinctively unsentimental baritone means it’s still unmistakably Cale it bears more similarity to both cutting-edge modern dance-rock and, somewhat curiously, alternative 80s synth-based Goth than it does to Cale’s glory years of the 60s and 70s.
Cale dominates proceedings, spending most of the set behind a keyboard at the front of the stage to which various bits of paper (lyrics? chord changes?) have been gaffer-taped. He retains his imperious beakiness, but seems more avuncular and willing to acknowledge the crowd than when I’ve seen him previously, and his pot belly and slight bow in his walk when he crosses the stage to switch over to stratocaster or acoustic makes him seem more like a hipster gnome than an avant garde wizard. His extraordinary facial expression when he’s hitting a high note does however remind me unfailingly of the transformation sequence in An American Werewolf In London.
In purely musical terms this is a top-notch performance, and happily it benefits from a strong and clear mix from the sound crew. Cale can still produce florid keyboard passages to put ELP in their place, but none of these new pieces come off as self-indulgent noodling – they’re all strongly structured, usually with definite hooks that may not be conventionally catchy but give you convenient entry points to the songs. The three-piece backing band (Dustin Boyer on guitar, Joey Maramba on bass and Alex Thomas on drums) are impeccably proficient and versatile, varying the approach when needed and supplying spot-on harmonies. There’s a laptop visible on stage, and often synthetic beats augmenting the drums in the mix, although it’s not clear how these are being controlled (possibly they’re triggered from Cale’s keyboard). A song starts, makes its point and finishes, then the master of ceremonies issues a quick introduction to the next one before cracking things along. The new album Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood sounds a bit over-produced and murky to me (autotune? really?) but tracks like I Wanna Talk 2 U and December Rains make a lot more sense when they’ve been de-cluttered in the live environment, and the selections the band plays from last year’s Extra Playful EP such as The Hanging and Whaddya Mean By That really rock. Cale even gets away with some cod-rapping on Hey Ray. It’s a big, and sometimes challenging, sound that this group puts out, but the discipline that’s always evident keeps you tuned in for the main part. And he does after all throw in some oldies, without ceremony but with all due efficiency: Helen Of Troy, Guts and a closing Dirtyass Rock’n’Roll.
At 70, John Cale is probably the oldest rock’n’roll act I’ve paid money to stand in front of but on the evidence of this gig there’s no sign that he’s slowing down or losing his mojo. Shame more folk didn’t turn out to see this rare phenomenon: a true rock legend, with no trace of queasy nostalgia.