On a night when the halls and bowls of Los Angeles were invaded by the titans of Matador Records (John Spencer @ Troubadour, Pavement / Sonic Youth / No Age @ Hollywood Bowl, Spoon / Cold Cave @ Palladium), who were preparing for their weekend takeover of Las Vegas, John Cale opened the fall season of UCLA Live at Royce Hall. Cale played two sets, the first one, backed by members of the UCLA philharmonic led by Neal Stulberg, was a live performance of his self-professed artistic climax, the 1973 album Paris 1919. The second was a gleaning of his discography, sometimes backed by the orchestra and sometimes only as a rock four-piece.
For his first set, Cale and ensemble performed Paris 1919 with sensitivity and authority for the near capacity Royce Hall crowd. The 1973 album was recorded with members of UCLA Symphony Orchestra, albeit an older generation of musicians, so Cale’s return to the campus for this one-off performance seemed very appropriate and genuine. During the entirety of the nine-song set, Cale hovered over the electric piano and belted out the lyrics in his deep Welsh accent as the string section of the philharmonic and a few token horns carried the mood from staccato to tumultuous and back. Cale, now 68, can still command a crowd with his classically trained musicianship and striking voice, though he has slightly trimmed back his vocal range. Cale kept mostly true to the format of Paris 1919, despite moving “Macbeth,” the album’s token rocker, from the end of Side A to the end of the set. The highlights of the set included the staccato string and piano percussion of “Paris 1919,” though unlike on record backed by actual drums; the powerful mood exuded in “Endless Plain of Fortune” and “Half Past France;” and the violent climax of Macbeth, where the string section chopped at their instruments to create the fury and chaos of a swarm of bees.
After an intermission in which I noticed a group of UCLA music students try to transcribe the chorus of “Paris 1919” and overheard a group of older fans brag about seeing Cale with Chris Spedding decades ago and their dueling Flying-V guitars, the Welshman returned with an acoustic guitar. Backed by a four-piece band and the horn section of the philharmonic they dove into “Hello There” the opening track of his first solo album, Vintage Violence. The second song of the set was when the crowd really fired up, as the horn section left and Cale returned to the electric piano and decimated the Elvis Presley standard “Heartbreak Hotel” in a wash of feedback, vocal distortion, and a myriad of other effects. The result was fucked up beyond any version I’ve heard on record and he has been performing the song for decades.
Cale continued his set oscillating between the piano and acoustic guitar, revisiting mostly songs from his 1970s catalogue. In the middle of the set, Cale was joined by Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service) and Mark Lanegan who took their crack at some Cale classics. Gibbard attempted the Vintage Violence track “Gideon’s Bible” and though he stayed true to the original his vocals are nowhere near as dense and dominating as Cale’s original. Lanegan sang “Ghost Story,” also from Vintage Violence, where he came across as Leonard Cohen meets the Doors, though I don’t know if it added anything to the original; he also sang “Win A Few,” a song written by Nico and produced by Cale, which better suited his vocal style than “Ghost Story.” The stand out track of the collaborations was “Ship of Fools,” in which the harmony between Gibbard and Cale was reminiscent of Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon at their early 1970s best, two artists Cale openly admired during the recording of his early 1970s albums, according to his 1999 autobiography, What’s Welsh for Zen.
After the orchestra reappeared for the set’s closing tracks, “Secret Corrida” and “Hedda Gabler,” Cale walked off stage only to soon return with a Fender strat for an encore medley of “Gun” and the Modern Lover’s “Pablo Picasso,” off the Lovers’ self-titled debut produced by Cale in 1972. For a second encore, Cale returned again, this time with an acoustic guitar, and called back Gibbard and Lanegan to harmonize on “Chorale.” For someone hoping to hear Cale’s interpretation of Velvet Underground classics, or expecting him to play his signature viola, they may have been confused, but Cale demonstrated the depth of his recorded solo catalogue and he deserved every ounce of the standing ovation he received at the show’s close.