Review: John Cale at the Llais Festival
It wasn’t the way most people would celebrate their 80th birthday but then again the greatest musician to come out of Garnant isn’t most people.
Last night at the Wales Millennium Centre John Cale took to the stage for the headline show of this year’s Llais Festival in the company of a band as tight as a snare drum, a youthful orchestra, Sinfonia Cymru and the House Gospel Choir, taking us us through a selection of the John Cale songbook, to be joined by fellow Welsh artists Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys on ‘Dead or Alive’ and Manic Street Preachers’ frontman James Dean Bradfield.
Bradfield’s version of Cale’s ‘Ship of Fools’ had him picking up a guitar at what seemed like a respectful distance from Cale to deliver a song which can seem like an American Welsh road movie, taking in places such as Tombstone where ‘a hangman’s noose hangs on a burned out tree,’ noting Dracula in Memphis, sailing from Tennessee to Arizona so that by the time this restless travelogue ‘gets to Swansea it is getting dark.’
In a recent interview with Huw Baines in the Guardian Bradfield traced Cale’s influence on his own work, noting how ‘He can take the avant garde and traditional songwriting and atomise them.
There are little explosions where you think, “Oh, this is a good song,” and then he starts tearing it apart.’
Tearing apart doesn’t get close to what the soon-to-be octogenarian Cale did to some of his songs.
He turned ‘Style it Takes’ from the album ‘Songs for Drella’ – which he and Lou Reed penned in tribute to their friend Andy Warhol – and made it darkly brooding and paranoid, like a soundtrack to New York City’s edginess in the 1970s.
Screeching violins and a guitarist playing his instrument with a bow seemed to echo Cale’s role as viola player in The Velvet Underground, the prototypical rock band of that decade that was a template for maybe a hundred others.
It’s a song full of tight maxims about life and art and, indeed about the Velvet Underground who had a ‘style that grates while I have art to make.’
If Cale deconstructed ‘Style it Takes’ as if with a wrecking ball it was as nothing to what he did to ‘Waiting for the Man,’ where he performed nothing less than reconstructive surgery on the heroin dealer of the title, making it different and making it new, as true artists of integrity have to do.
He made a new song out of an old one, presenting a rock and roll classic as if freshly minted, though still a troubling anthem of dark streets and handshake drugs.
So this was to be the way of the night, re-presenting and interrogating Cale’s own back catalogue, including settings of not one but two Dylan Thomas poems and visiting Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ which seemed to ladle some extra loneliness into the song, as if that were possible.
He also offered two new songs from ‘Mercy,’ being his first album in a decade, which show that Cale’s creative flow is far from being stymied and, moreover suggesting that he can channel his inner Leonard Cohen in some of the lyrics.
In a packed Donald Gordon theatre, sometimes hunched over his keyboard, with grey hair to march his silver shoes, was John Cale, our John, the classically trained schoolboy who won a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study modern composition at Tanglewood in America where he soon fell out with composer Aaron Copland.
‘Copland said I couldn’t play my work at Tanglewood,’ Cale once recalled. ‘It was too destructive, he said. He didn’t want his piano wrecked.’
Creatively destructive is not a bad way to sum up Cale’s artistic passage through life, making prickly, edgy music while knowing exactly how to hold a tune and take a scalpel to craft his lyrics.
From the opening song of the show ‘Jumbo in tha Modernworld’ – where tubas turned elephantine trumpets – through songs such as the forlorn ‘Half Past France’ to ‘Gideon’s Bible’ on which he harmonised deftly with Cate Le Bon, Cale showed that he wasn’t here to monkey around.
He was here to question his own work, hold it up to the light to see if it would sparkle, even if the songs themselves so often address the shadows and channel darkness.
There are a couple of lines in ‘Ship of Fools’ which mention how ‘Garnant stood its ground and asked for more’ and ‘All the people seemed quite glad to see us.’
And all the people were glad to see him, Garnant’s finest, who had the audience at the Wales Millennium Centre on their feet in one standing ovation.
For to be in the presence of greatness is quite the thing, and Cale is the real thing, standing on the landscape of modern music as a cathedral amongst booths, a towering, troubling presence who still makes himself felt.
The Llais festival continues at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 30th October.
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