The audience knew exactly what to expect. A Welsh poet approaching his three score years and ten walked onstage last night and gave a Royal Festival Hall packed with loyal fans: “simple words […] moving as beats at a controlled pace […] his own inexhaustibly haunting tone that lingers like sounds in a darkness.”
Those words of Catherine Runcie describe the late poetry of RS Thomas. But they also sum up the impression left by John Cale. Cale received whoops and whistles of welcome as he walked on. Each and every song was instantly greeted with a happy clap of recognition.
The main Cale offering was the entire 1973 album Paris 1919, arranged for band and orchestra. It was previously performed in Cardiff at the end of last year. On that occasion, complete with a real Welsh bard.
These are songs born in an age of uncertainty.”She makes me so unsure of myself,” the opening words of the title song of Paris 1919, performed fifth in the opening sequence, were intoned in a way which expressed nothing less than the precise opposite. These days the song peddles reassurance and solidity, accompanied by chugging quavers from massed strings. If there is any vestige left of 1973, of anger, of the cold war, it is now glimpsed through a comforting blanket of nostalgia. It seems an anthem to a very distant age.
The next song, Graham Greene, entailed an even more stately progression from chord to chord. And the final song of the sequence, Macbeth was a major key symphonic rondo, bringing emphatic closure. We are at the final apotheosis of seventies rock and roll: “Come on along and tell me its all right. It’s all right by me.” Exeunt omnes, pass go, collect a knighthood, perhaps.
If all that was all right by Cale, then one thing definitely wasn’t all right by me. And that was the sound. An audience in 2010 simply has a right to expect better. There were moments when Cale was aiming for distortion effects, but the equipment simply didn’t cope with the loud ending of Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend. I single out the most painful moment- the sound throughout was simply not up to scratch.
The shortness of the break after Paris 1919 caught an audience which had headed off to the congeniality of bars completely off-guard. Cale and the band launched into the next four songs in front of a half-full house, during which people gradually drifted back. The band plus orchestra then finished off with Hedda Gabler. After fully five minutes of a standing, begging ovation, the band returned, and obliged with an encore: a slick, professional, clean-cut romp through Dirty-Ass Rock and Roll. The packed house was ecstatic.
The characterful songs and the appealing voice of warm-up act, young viola-playing ex-Burberry model and Cale fan Patrick Wolf, were well-received, despite his general diffidence onstage.
I’m looking forward to yet more nostalgia: catching Cale’s erstwhile colleague Lou Reed on tour in the UK with new project next month.