It had been a long time coming. After the second Covid-related postponement of this concert last November, I was tempted to apply for a refund, but hey, this was John Cale. How many legends are there left that are still touring, and still releasing and playing new work?
The “Velvet Underground & Nico” album was released in the year I was born. I bought it when I was about 15, as I kept reading about it in interviews, where other musicians mentioned it as an inspiration. I bought the album in a clothes shop in Arnhem that sold records in the basement - on vinyl. This was before CDs.
I saw John Cale live twice before. In the late 80’s in Nijmegen, when I was living there, and in 2018 at the End Of The Road Festival, where John headlined the Garden Stage. Roughly thirty years between those gigs! At the End Of The Road I was so impressed that I decided I wanted to go and see a proper headline show.
There was a huge sense of anticipation in the Town Hall Theatre. John walked on very unassumingly. He was dressed in black drainpipe trousers and a coat. He has a full head of white hair and wore glasses. Walks with a bit of a limp. Other than that he looked very well. He greeted us with a “Hello Brum”, but otherwise spoke very little. When someone in the audience shouted something there was just a faint smile.
The excellent band that accompanied him was the same as last time at the End Of The Road: Guitar, bass and drums. John himself stood behind the keyboard, thankfully right out front in full view. He had a file with papers in front of him, and a laptop beside him. For just one song, ‘Cable Hogue’, John switched to guitar. Most of the time the band members were looking at John intently, and he directed them with a slight nod of the head. The band members did not speak either, just the odd gesture towards a sound person on the side.
It was a joy to sit amongst such an attentive audience. Someone in a ‘Transformer’ T-shirt stood up to dance in the side aisle. Videos and images were projected onto a backdrop. I felt this was a bit disruptive. For me it took away from rather than added to the music.
They played five songs from John’s most recent album ‘Mercy’ and I loved that. No feeling of obligation to “play the hits”. Heritage acts make me sad and I feel this was exactly as a gig should be: A good chunk of the most recent album and a selection of songs from all across the back catalogue. Broadcaster Steve Hargrave phrased it very well in his tweet: “Something very life affirming about watching an 80 year old music legend still ploughing his own unique magical path - well worth waiting for this man”.
The only concession towards nostalgia was a photo of a young Cale and Nico on the screen during ‘Moonstruck (Nico’s Song)’, one of the highlights of the concert. This run of UK shows is now finished. I compared the setlists on setlist.fm and noticed that the set also varied from one show to the next. Younger musicians take note! The show was an hour and twenty minutes. For the encore John came back on his own and sang ‘Close Watch’. Quite a moment.
Support came from Manu Grace, a singer from South Africa. She sang and played guitar and bass along with sounds coming from a synthesizer. It was nice to listen to. Best song of her set for me was the Jackson Browne cover ‘These Days’, no doubt chosen for the Nico connection. Nico covered this song on her album ‘Chelsea Girl’. For this song Manu Grace dropped the backing track and just sang and played guitar.
A note on the venue: The Town Hall Theatre is a wonderful venue. Atmospheric foyers, perfect sound. There was no merch for sale.
Jumbo In The Modernworld
Moonstruck (Nico’s Song)
Rose garden Funeral Of Sores
Noise Of You
Half Past France
Out Your Window
I Keep A Close Watch