Artist: John Cale
Venue: Verti Music Hall
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 8 December 2018
01. Frozen Warnings [Nico cover]
01. Frozen Warnings [Nico cover]
02. Story of Blood
04. Hedda Gabler
05. The Endless Plain of Fortune
06. Chums of Dumpty (We All Are)
08. Half Past France
10. I Keep a Close Watch
11. Helen of Troy
14. I'm Waiting for the Man [Velvet Underground song]
The first concert I ever wrote a review for was a John Cale show that I saw in Vienna in 2007. (It was originally published on the Fear Is a Man's Best Friend fansite and later revised for my own blog once I started it.) Shortly thereafter, I also published a review of Circus Live from the same year. Back then, he already seemed rather old, but he still had a lot of energy. He was touring with three backing musicians and mixing elements of rock, pop, drone, and noise.
This concert was billed as "John Cale & Orchestra", and sure enough, he appeared on stage with a string section and three horn players (sousaphone, bass clarinet, and mellophone/trumpet), conducted by Randall Woolf. However, he also had a rock band backing him up: Dustin Boyer on guitar, Deantoni Parks on drums, and Joey Maramba on bass. This time around, Cale's age was more apparent in that he didn't seem quite as mobile as before, but his voice has remained strong and he still played his keyboard and guitar with deftness.
Cale opened the show with a droning cover of Nico's "Frozen Warnings", the original studio version of which he arranged and performed on. It was a convincing rendition, an oddly appropriate tribute, and a strong start to the evening. Unfortunately, rarely again during the show would Cale manage to balance vision, palatability, style, experimentation, and recognizability so effectively. In fact, most of the set felt deliberately confrontational.
The setlist wandered across his entire career, from "Amsterdam" from his solo debut, Vintage Violence (1970), to "Mary" from his last album of original music, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012). A few songs, such as the latter and the encore "Emily" (frustratingly performed without the orchestra) were performed rather straight – as in, close to the beloved and familiar original studio versions, but perhaps a bit more darkly textured and drawn out. "I Keep a Close Watch" was also done more like the beauteous and grand versions from Helen of Troy (1975) and Music for a New Society (1982) than the recent reimagining as an electro-R&B groove from Cale's latest release M:FANS (2016).
But that was about as far as anything comfortable or accommodating went. "Story of Blood", a new song, was dark, brooding, and looming. The classic "The Endless Plain of Fortune" from Paris 1919 (1973), originally a lush, dramatic duel between clear skies and stormclouds, was spitefully performed without the orchestra. It instead featured a long keyboard solo with an unsettlingly cheesy tone. "Half Past France" was transformed into an amelodic dirge augmented by strange samples, again without the orchestra. "Hatred", an obscurity from the Nookie Wood era, was another intense and dark morass oddly accompanied by samples of neighing horses.
Thankfully, not every song was quite that bizarre and difficult. "Magritte" was about as weird as the original version and almost as good. "Hedda Gabler", already dark and long in the studio version from the Animal Justice EP (1977) was notably heavier and stranger. Instead of the choir and guitar solo that dominated the second half of the original, Cale let the orchestra step in to perform an extended, exciting, and varied instrumental passage. "Helen of Troy" was about as heavy and aggressive as ever, but it featured a long solo incorporating Boyer's guitar, the bass clarinet, and the mellophone. It was a combination I'd never seen before, and it was fascinating.
"I'm Waiting for the Man" was another interesting rearrangement. It is one of the only Velvet Underground songs that Cale regularly performs, along with "Venus in Furs", despite that he is not credited with writing either one. However, it was Cale that gave those songs their trademark sounds. Lou Reed usually turned "I'm Waiting for the Man" into a glam or hard rock song. Cale has always done strange things with it. This time, it was a protracted drone rendition that seemed to erase most of the chord changes. At least he kept most of the melody, so it almost felt like something you could hold on to.
The entire show was also accompanied by a visual projection above the stage designed by Abby Portner. The psychedelic patterns were about what I would expect from the sister of Animal Collective's Avey Tare, but some of the imagery such as an emaciated woman in a swimsuit (during "Wasteland") was fairly disturbing. A couple other segments also felt a bit exploitative. It helps to know that the visual artist was a woman, but the old-timey images of dancing women jarred with Cale's sound and style.
The aesthetics and location of the venue also made for a bizarre experience. The venue is named after an insurance company and only opened in October. The building is shared with a bunch of international chain restaurants and stores that I would probably never enter by choice. It sits on the Mercedes-Platz, which is surrounded by further bland establishments and filled with coordinated electronic advertising columns. On one side is the Mercedes-Benz Arena, a building whose construction in the late 00s was heavily criticized, in part because the developers convinced the city to shift a section of the nearby East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall covered in artwork created during the reunification. It was my first time ever walking around the commercial district, and it was terrifying.
Ignoring the environment, I enjoyed the show, although I'm not sure if Cale wanted me to. He continues to defy expectations and baffle the unwitting, but this is the same guy who was kicked out of The Velvet Underground for being too weird. It's a bold move to hire an orchestra and then have them sit out on all the songs originally recorded with orchestral accompaniment. When they did play, it was rarely in a traditional, melodic style. Even with Cale's aggravating elements, some songs were still enjoyable, and I appreciate that Cale isn't willing to compromise. I don't really understand what his goal was, or what he was trying to get across, but I'm glad that he hasn't mellowed out with age. He's always been a challenging artist, and it doesn't look that is going to change any time soon.