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John Cale, 23 May 2011

Dome, Brighton

23 May 2011

A powerful and commanding performance from John Cale at Brighton's Dome yesterday, in a one-off Festival show loosely themed around the title Émigré/Lost & Found. His voice as clear and fluent as it ever was, straight back, hawk nose, sharp eyes flashing under still-thick white hair (the pink streaks he sported to collect his OBE last year now grown out). The strong sense of a man you wouldn't mess with... Accompanied by a four-piece band and a string quartet, he ranged widely through a more-than-forty-year back catalogue, bringing out effectively how movement, travel and loss have been recurrent themes for him.

And what a catalogue. I've got about a dozen of his solo albums, but that's far from a complete set and some of last night's songs were new to me. There are avant-garde instrumentals and orchestral works alongside affecting, intelligent singer-songwriter excursions and flat-out, screaming (literally), rock. His quality control is not always consistent and not every album is satisfying as a whole, but there are always gems lurking. I'd seen him once before, in 1984 when haunting versions of 'Leaving It All Up To You' and 'Close Watch' were in amongst the less inspired Caribbean Sunset material of the day.

Of course, Cale is significant. Even if he'd never made even one solo album, anyone with a sense of musical history would be interested in seeing the co-founder of the Velvet Underground, producer of pivotal albums like the first Stooges and Modern Lovers albums and Patti Smith's Horses, the architect of the strange beauty of Nico's Marble Index and Desertshore. Still need convincing? Go and listen to the organ part on the Velvets' 'Sister Ray' and ponder his influence...

The good news is that the songs stand up, without any unnecessary hagiography. In one quiet moment towards the end of last night's show, one devotee shouted 'Thank you, John Cale. You are a genius.' He grinned briefly, said 'Calm down' firmly, and moved on to the next number.

The night's travelogue began with the squally rock of 'Captain Hook', with lyrical references to the East India Company and sailing round the Cape of Good Hope, via 'Look Horizon' and a beach in Zanzibar, to a beautiful 'Amsterdam' from 1970's Vintage Violence and a stunning 'Chinese Envoy'. The strings appeared first for 'Half Past France' from Paris 1919, probably his most popular album. He's one of the great deployers of evocative place names, not overly dependent on the easier North American ones: 

I suppose I'm glad I'm on this train
And it's long
Somewhere between Dunkirk and Paris.
Most people here are still asleep
But I'm awake
Looking out from here -- at half-past France.
Things are much different here than Norway
Not so cold.
Wonder when we'll be in Dundee...

It's also a song  that shows clearly his penchant for giving his characters a brutal pay-off line amidst the beauty:

Back in Berlin they're all well fed -
I don't care.
People always bored me anyway.

And so it went on: the sleepy wild west scene of 'Buffalo Ballet', Afghanistan in 'Letter from Abroad'. Cale's homeland Wales was evoked in 'Ship of Fools' (' the time we got to Swansea, it was getting dark...') and his setting of Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gently'.

The final encore featured Cale rocking out impressively, Stratocaster in hand, on his seventies classic 'Helen of Troy'. Not much chance of him going gently...

A mild rap over the knuckles for failing to introduce his fine band: the drummer looked naggingly familiar and I now find it was Michael Jerome - last spotted by me on the Dome's stage in February doing equally fine things for Richard Thompson; and my first encounter, I think, with the storming and splendidly off-centre guitarist Dustin Boyer.

And finally... he's not just a songs man, of course. Why not give a listen to some fine and subtly orchestrated instrumentals on his Paris S'Eveille soundtrack album? It's one of my regular Sunday breakfast records - lovely stuff and you get the bonus of an obscure Velvets instrumental.

I suppose I'm glad I'm on this trainAnd it's longSomewhere between Dunkirk and Paris.Most people here are still asleepBut I'm awakeLooking out from here -- at half-past France.Not so cold.Wonder when we'll be in Dundee...I don't care.People always bored me anyway.

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