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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
 

PARIS 1919, JOHN CALE AND THE HERITAGE ORCHESTRA
Royal Festival Hall, London, March 15th 2010

People often ask me, “Nick”, they ask me, “How do you have such an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of music?”.  It’s like asking a magician how he does his tricks, isn’t it?  But I will share one essential source that has informed fully my views of the principal performer featured in this review, and given me numerous other compelling insights (as they sometimes say in marketing). 

Mandrake

Did you know, for example, that would-be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s favourite song is ‘Tangled up in blue’, or that if he were cast away on a desert island his one luxury would be a case of ‘Scottish’ (sic) whisky?  Or that cult economist Vince Cable was a fan of Pat Boone’s ‘Love letters in the sand’.  And if you’re wondering, Gordon Brown didn’t express as much enthusiasm for the Arctic Monkeys as he was to later.  What am I talking about?  It’s BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, which for over forty years has been inviting celebrities to talk about their lives and careers.  It’s a simple formula show where guests are asked to choose their eight favourite records, one of which, along with a book and a luxury, they have to nominate to accompany them,  marooned on an imaginary island.  How else would I know that Jarvis Cocker is a fan of Lieutenant Pigeon’s seminal ‘Mouldy old dough’, or that Madness singer Suggs could contemplate spending his life in solitude with Peggy Lee?  All of life is captured in this sometime marvellous programme, where week by week actors are cheek by jowl with politicians, Nobel winning scientists, writers, painters, comedians and occasionally musicians.  Of course the programmes and personalities can sometimes be prosaic, no matter what their claimed achievements might be.  But on other occasions,  the gentle narrative of someone’s life can be gripping, haunting, never forgotten. 

John Cale certainly fell into the latter category (as did a memorable half- hour with Christy Moore), as he described his childhood, dominated by a tyrannical grandmother who never forgave Cale’s mother for slighting the family’s reputation by marrying ‘beneath her station’, and subsequently falling on hard times.  Although father spoke only English, grandmother insisted that the household spoke Welsh only. 

John Cale

It was cruelty too ghastly to hear, and possibly explained why Cale spent so much time trying to get away, first to London as a teacher, and then to New York as a musician, where he eventually met Lou Reed and formed Velvet Underground. 

Of course you can travel as far as you like, but a Welsh accent always gives you away, as Cale demonstrated when he briefly welcomed the audience at the start of this performance of his 1973 album Paris 1919.  Of course it’s all the fashion, playing whole albums like this.  But normally at least there’s a reissue, a DVD, or some other promotional or merchandising opportunity that accompanies the show.  Not here. 

Cale is apparently playing it simply ‘because he can’; and of course because he can pack out the Royal Festival Hall in the process.  He’s backed by a band (the nucleus of Little Feat, anxious to earn a living, played on the recording) and orchestra (nice strings and a very lively brass section), but the stand-out feature of the evening is Cale’s voice which booms through the songs with a verve and vigour that is frankly surprising for someone of his age.  That doesn’t always work to his advantage.  Paris 1919 is one of those albums which, for all its qualities, is somewhat trapped in its own time, and if the music can stand the test of time, the lyrics sometimes fall a little short.

Paris 1919

Now I should be careful, because I read somewhere that the “the subject of Paris 1919 is nothing less than the entirety of Western European high culture, viewed roughly from a post-World War I, Dada-Surrealist perspective. The album is an epic reassessment of history, geography and art itself”.  But be that as it may, any song called ‘Hanky panky no how’ is bound to raise at least a snigger, whilst references to Enoch Powell were sufficient to mystify the more youthful sections of the audience and I doubt anyone, me included, knew who Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was.  But that is a slight aside, because the whole performance was thoroughly engaging.

And after a short break following the album performance, Cale returned with his band (and eventually the orchestra too) to perform some other gems from his back catalogue and demonstrate his remarkable versatility.  These included a wonderfully scabrous version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (all that was missing, thankfully, were bleeding ears), a touching setting of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and finally ‘Dirty ass rock and roll’, whose line “Well, you can make a pacemaker blink” clearly now has more meaning for many of the audience than in it did thirty years ago.

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
This was one of those almost perfect Friday nights, with a bravura performance full of energy and good spirits, both from Cale himself and his Heritage Orchestra.  It’s just a shame, on reflection, that he had to endure such a painful childhood on the journey to get here. 

I’d almost expected him to take a case of ‘Scottish’ whisky to that desert island, rather than the leader of the Conservative Party, but actually he (John, not Dave) did the booze (and drugs) thing pretty hard in the 1980s, so really it’s not surprising that he took an espresso machine and a year’s supply of coffee beans instead. - Nick Morgan

Listen: John Cale's myspace page (with the original Paris 1919)




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