John Cale's album before Paris 1919 was called The Academy in Peril. Last night, at UCLA's Royce Hall, the academy was never in real peril.
Sure, there were a couple of moments (see below), when the academy was under a vague risk of being slightly soiled, of being smeared a little with the street-level grime of the Velvets' Ludlow St. flophouse that has always provided Cale's erudition with its soul and joie de vivre. But overall, it was a genteel affair fit for UCLA live and their main NPR constituency (yup, that was Jason Bentley DJing the afterparty.)
Here's what we wrote last week for the Music Pick preview of this show: “Cale has been playing in public since his teens, first as an avant-garde classical music prodigy, then as a member of the most legendary (almost hallowed in most circles) lineup of the Velvet Underground, and for over forty years as an eccentric, always surprising solo artist. He's done it all and he's always been younger and cooler than you'll ever be. He might be playing all of Paris 1919, but it's always the most fervent version of the present in Cale-land.”
Well, last night's show was certainly a version of the present, but it wasn't very fervent. Only a couple of times (again, see below) did we get glimpses of the feverish genius behind one of the most influential musical compositions of the 20th century, “Sister Ray,” and the daring explorer working with the Theatre of Eternal Music (check out Cale's drony tapes for LaMonte Young released as Sun Blindness Music–then realize it was 1965 and he was 23).
The rest of the time we got a pleasant dinnertime concert in a sit-down hall full of professorial types and public radio subscribers, with a strict “no photo” policy annoyingly enforced by an army of uniformed student-ushers. This was strictly 20th century bourgeois entertainment, perhaps fitting to the imagery and aura of the album that was being celebrated.
Paris 1919 is a hyper-literate concoction, haunted by all kinds of ghosts, mainly Graham Greene's (who was very much alive at the time). There are also echoes of the world of the young, disaffected Hitler, because this wouldn't be a classic Cale album without a couple of nods to perversion to make the comfortable less so. And the songs are credited to publishing company Tin Pan Punk Music. Yes, Cale was making Punk Music in 1973, while John Lydon was still deciphering Van Der Graaf Generator.
But Paris 1919 is also a secret Los Angeles record: it was recorded here, it features Little Feat's Lowell George, and Cale famously drafted
the 1973 version of the UCLA Orchestraa group of classically trained USC students to add a high-culture patina to his compositions [nobody knows why the UCLA orchestra was officially credited by the label.]
Last night the 68-year-old enfant terrible was joined by the 2010 incarnation of the UCLA best-and-brightest classical performers (fact: all most likely born in the 1990s). During the couple of moments of high energy/high weirdness, the prim collegians looked a little confused by the intensity of the rocking Welshman doing things that colleges these days like to call “inappropriate” (if they only knew…)
It was fun to watch Cale, who in life-experience-years is about 300 years old and has the deportment of a vital vortex of coolness, try to lead these kids through his strange body of work for the amusement of a crowd mostly made up of Greil Marcus- and Camille Paglia- lookalikes.
Musical tweaks to Paris 1919 were minimal and subtle: the title track is still the most wonderful thing about the album and it wasn't really tampered with, “Graham Greene” was given a reggae-from-another-dimension makeover, and the rollicking side-1-closer “Macbeth” (which had been Cale's attempt to get a glam single out of the album in the era of “Spirtit in the Sky” and Marc Bolan) was moved to the end of the whole set.
The most moving moment was the meditative “Half Past France,” where Cale unleashed the unique power of his voice, a perfect blend of nostalgia and authority, and those with good memories were reminded that his were the pipes that rescued “Hallelujah” from being an obscure Leonard Cohen album track and struck Jeff Buckley to the core.
After the intermission, Cale changed into tight white trousers and delved deep into his eccentric catalog. He opened (of course) with “Hello There,” from his first solo album Vintage Violence. Nice poppy appetizer, but right after he put down his acoustic guitar and we got the first real John Cale moment of the evening: yet another twist on his live cover tour de force, Elvis' “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Distorted vocals, deep, dark moods, skronky guitars: the academy in discomfort. Amazing. This was the first time the concert could have gone in a deliciously weird direction, but then gears were changed and we were back to NPR-land. Time for the guests: Mark Lanegan (his lugubrious usual–an aged Jim Morrison to make the over-39 ladies swoon) and Death Cab/Postal Service/Zooey spouse Ben Gibbard (the gentle bard of your morning commute).
Cale and his group backed Lanegan on Vintage Violence's “Ghost Story,” given a disjointed-jazz, Residents-y arrangement, and then they played a straight-up country rewrite of Fear's “Ship of Fools” behind Gibbard's soft croon, and Vintage's “Gideon's Bible” as much more bossa-inflected.
Lanegan returned to reprise his version of Nico's “Win a Few” (from the Cale-produced Camera Obscura), which they had done years before at a tribute for the tragic chanteuse. Last night's arrangement was loopy (it sounded at times like the Chemical Brother's relooping of “Tomorrow Never Knows”) with a short dip into improv with an orientalist synth solo.
The two new songs (“Whaddya Mean” and “Catastrophic”) were the least interesting part of the show, though with Cale one never knows. He might be onto something the rest of us will only go “ha!” 20 years from now.
He kept it deep-cut with an orchestrated version of “Secret Corrida,” from the ultra-obscure Walking With Locusts (1996). And he closed the main set with “Hedda Gabler,” from a 1976 EP, which built up to a cinematic end and a series of controlled incantations, “sleep, Hedda Gabler.”
The encore was the second time after “Heartbreak Hotel” where we caught a glimpse of Cale's furious genius. The orchestra filed in, they sat on their seats and then Cale and guitar player Dustin Boyer locked into a symbiotic, brutal version of Fear's “Gun,” to the confused looks of the young violinists sitting among them. In other shows of this tour, the local orchestra augmented the rocking-out, but the UCLA kids just sat there in awe. And then the groove began to turn serious.
Cale switched mid-song into a demonic version of Jonathan Richman's “Pablo Picasso” (“was never called an asshole–not in New York”), chugging steady and spitting the verses until they turned into speaking-in-tongues hoodoo. The band jammed on. It was glorious for a second, but it came too late in the show.
There was a second encore, with Lanegan and Gibbard joining in on the kumbaya-like “Chorale,” Cale's own “Hallelujah.”
Very appropriate finale, for the academy.
Child's Christmas in Wales
Hanky Panky Nohow
Endless Plain of Fortune
Half Past France
Antarctica Starts Here
Ghost Story (with Mark Lanegan)
Ship of Fools (with Ben Gibbard)
Gideon's Bible (with Ben Gibbard)
Win a Few (with Mark Lanegan)