John Cale concert at St Luke’s 26 Nov 2003

This was a live concert recorded by BBC4 at an atmospheric church in Islington.

I went to this show with my brother and our respective wives. We were both very familiar with all of Cale’s stuff except Hobosapiens which neither of us had heard. The ladies ‘knew’ Hallelujah and that was about it.

The setting was small, intimate, theatre sized, in a converted church. Cale dressed in white the first half, black the second. He played a lot of new songs, which sounded like they were first class, strongly melodic, arresting lyrically; but I found it hard to properly appreciate what I was hearing for the first time. His versions of familiar songs were either good (Andulacia, Fear, Cable Hogue), great (Hallulujah, Chinese Envoy, E is missing, Ship of Fools, Thoughtless Kind), or poor (Paris 1919). There were probably others I’ve forgotten. The best by far for me was Chinese Envoy. Haunting. I would have travelled twice the distance (70 miles) just to hear him sing that.

The ladies were awed by Cale’s sheer stage presence and were amazed he was in his sixties. So was I, frankly. As they admitted, if I had said he was 35 they would have had no difficulty believing me. My wife felt he had a ‘hard’ face; not someone to meet on a dark night; but I thought I saw his vulnerable side.

Personally, I preferred it when Cale played acoustic guitar, alone; or the band was muted; as in the two encores. There were some truly great moments; but there was a bit too much ‘rock’ for me. Having said that, I’m aware Cale’s been touring alone for years with just a guitar and piano so he has every reason for wanting to branch out.

Having never seen him live before (my brother saw him at Oxford, during his masked, ‘punk’ days) I’m planning to catch him again at Brighton in December. I’ll make sure I’ve heard Hobosapiens about a hundred times first, though.

Obviously, I can’t compare this to other Cale concerts; so I would be interested to hear what those who can thought of it. For me, it was a great performance, full of energy, with some lovely touches, from someone who is a true original. There’s simply no one remotely like John Cale. I’m sure when I hear him again in a couple of months I’ll appreciate that even more.

John Cale at Brighton 16 Jan 2004

This was Cale’s last show on his European tour.

Having seen John Cale at St Luke’s without the benefit of knowing Hobosapiens back to front, familiarity with the new songs meant I enjoyed Brighton ten times more. The set list was similar, though no Hallelujah, nor Cordoba. In fact, it was almost identical to the others posted recently. 

Queuing to get in, I was worried only a smattering of people would turn up. In the end, a respectable number half filled the Dome. It was a curious mix of young and old, weird and very ordinary looking. It could have been a model train collector’s seminar.

I sat near the front; but as soon as the music started I headed closer to the stage. That was definitely the place to be.

I thought the entire set was musically pretty tight, and song seemed to follow song seamlessly. There was very little talking, or introductions: the songs spoke for themselves.

Over the years, I’ve got so used to hearing musically simple – just piano or acoustic guitar – versions of most of John Cale’s truly amazing back catalogue I found I preferred the recent songs to those I knew almost as well as childhood nursery rhymes. Having said that, Chinese Envoy and Andulucia were fantastic. I couldn’t say the same for Paris 1919. The lead guitar interpretation of the pastoral interlude just didn’t do it for me. There were three great screamers: Fear (unbelievable), Cable Hogue and Leaving It Up To You (visceral); they left me wondering at how much strain a throat (or heart) can take.

I would have liked to hear Zen; but Over Her Head, Look Horizon, Magritte, Archimedes, and Things, were all top class. One song stood out above all the others, though, and that was Caravan. This was performed loudly, but started softly, remained beautifully modulated throughout, and rose to its crescendo so sure footedly I was in awe. What a fantastic track it is.

I don’t know how the enthusiasm of the audience compared with other shows on the tour. John seemed happy enough with his reception. I wasn’t yodeling but I was clapping pretty loudly. Clapping above my head, which is rare for me. I did join in the shouts for an encore, but this was always going to happen, since it was used to both introduce and bid farewell to the band members.

What I hope to see one day is John Cale in concert, alone with his electronic keyboard. Sensitive and accomplished though the others were, it was John’s versatility that shone through. What a voice; what lyrics; what an extraordinary performer!

My abiding feeling was astonishment at how somebody so accomplished – a living legend, as I overheard one person say – should attract such a relatively paltry audience; and how fortunate I was to be there