John Cale and Cass McCombs

The El Rey


Better than… The absolutely sad shitshow that a Velvet Underground reunion tour would be.

Legacy is probably one of those good problems. For John Cale, this means struggling to do something new when you'll always be the guy who propelled The Velvet Underground into actual art and released a string of four near-perfect solo albums from 1973 to 1975 (Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy).

Cale's now touring in support of his October release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. It's a deeply weird and confusing album, not because (as you might think) it's full of avant-garde headfakes or structural geegaws, but because it sounds like lost Genesis B-sides, heavy on synths, drum machines, and funk guitar. For those who know Cale as the weird one from The Velvet Underground or the baroque pop genius of the '70s, it's all just kinda bewildering. And his live show is even more so.

Opening up for Cale was Cass McCombs, who has been quietly blowing up since 2005. Twin 2011 releases, Wit's End and Humor Risk, seem to have raised his star further. The crowd (a fair amount of whom seemed to be there more for McCombs than Cale) responded most to McCombs at his slowest. More uptempo rockers seemed to miss their mark, no matter how much McCombs' vein-popping vocals strain for it. But on songs like “Equinox” or set-ender “My Sister, My Spouse,” McCombs and crew can do a gradual burn that makes everyone in the room take notice.

John Cale, a resident of Los Angeles, took the stage to a burst of feedback, which seemed to suggest the crowd was in store for some White Light/White Heat wall-of-noise wailing. But that's not what happened. Instead Cale and his backing band shredded through a set pulled from Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood and some older tracks, but all shot through with a grunge/funk twist. While the sound on the album is a digital throwback, Cale's live set is more analog but equally archaic. It reminiscent of Alice in Chains, or Black Crowes, or late-stage Guns N' Roses (indeed, one of Nookie Wood's songs is called “December Rains.”)

It's well-performed (guitarist Dustin Boyer absolutely flies on the fretboard), loud as hell (my ears, two hours later, are still ringing), and it's obviously the sound that Cale wants at this point in his career. But it's strange to hear in 2012. The crowd, which slowly thinned out throughout the night, was somewhat willing to go along for the ride, but outside of a band of loyalists pressed against the stage nobody perked up much. This is partly due to live crowds always enjoying the old stuff more than the new stuff, but partly due to the fact that Cale's new stuff is just, well, odd.

Cale threw out a some nuggets. There was a lovely rendition of “You Know More Than I Know.” There was “Helen of Troy,” where getting to watch the pure joy from Cale's backing band as they fucked around with a living legend was maybe the highlight of the entire evening. A rocking, almost power-pop version of “Paris 1919” got a few people hanging out near the bar to rush the stage. But after each one, Cale usually returned to his new work. After “Paris 1919,” Cale smiled at the audience and said, “Time for some nookie.” You like the hits? Fine, but here's what I want to play.

His legacy means that Cale has earned the right to do this type of thing. But his legacy also means that for many people showing up to the El Rey, the highlight was still his encore, a long, extended take on Fear's “Gun.” Legacy may be one of those good problems, but it's still a problem.

Personal Bias: I'm a huge fan of Cale, but haven't kept up with how his live sound has changed. I probably would have been happier seeing something more like what's on Circus Live.

The Crowd: Music nerds, geeks, and dorkus malorkuses of all stripes. Cool dads and rocking moms. Couples aching to hear “Paris 1919.”

Random Notebook Dump: I loathe folks who spend shows thrusting their phones and cameras above their heads to take a crappy snapshots. But I needed a picture for this review. We become what we hate. (Also, after I took the photo I immiediately uploaded it to Instagram. Nobody gets out alive.)

Set list:

Hedda Gabler

Captain Hook


Model Beirut Recital


December Rains



I Wanna Talk 2 U

Whaddya Mean By That

You Know More Than I Know

Helen of Troy

Paris 1919

Nookie Wood




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