Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Rock Heritage

John Cale and The Heritage Orchestra perform Paris 1919
Royal Festival Hall – 5th March 2010

Having never seen the great John Cale live before, and with the knowledge that he would be performing his superb ‘Paris 1919’ album in full, I’d been eagerly anticipating this concert for some time. I use the word ‘concert’ rather than gig because that is very much what it was – a stately, reverential and, for the most part, somewhat uninspired recreation of Cale’s 1973 hymn to cold war Europe, coupled with a rather short and ungenerous second half of more adventurous pieces for the band.

‘Paris 1919’ is rightly regarded as one of Cale’s more conventional albums. Whilst it has rich orchestral arrangements, it’s very much a set of melodic pop songs and there is very little hint of Cale’s interest in the avant garde, or of the poised confrontation of The Velvet Underground. The recording, however, is beautifully nuanced and with members of Little Feat in the original band, even the languid ballads threaten to tip into a lithe groove.

Yet when the band finally joins the orchestra onstage after a somewhat unprofessional and uncertain pause, the opening ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ simply lacks punch. Perhaps it’s something to do with drummer Michael Jerome playing an unconventional kit, largely sticking to brushes and providing the kick from a cajon. The problem isn’t confined just to this song, unfortunately, with the entire rendition of the album seeming slick, over-rehearsed and lacking any injection of immediacy or inspiration.

The arrangements seemed to suffer from overthinking how best to combine band and orchestra. Perhaps wary of cutting through the string section, guitarist Dustin Boyer repeatedly resorted to a clich├ęd and grating distorted rock ballad guitar sound that undermined the sensitivities of the songs. Rather than touching or affecting, the album’s ballads ended up overcooked and bordering on histrionic. The album’s livelier moments, such as ‘Macbeth’ (moved to the end of the set presumably to create a rousing finale), seemed to lack teeth. Only ‘Graham Greene’, one of my least favourite songs on the album, seemed to achieve a fresh impetus – less playful but more insistent than the studio version.

If the original recording has a significant fault, it’s that Cale’s consistently double tracked vocals are often uncomfortably flat. Tonight, his voice sounded stronger, more confident and more articulate. The intelligent, wry wordplay of much of the album’s lyrics at least came through with clarity and purpose. This made it all the more unfortunate that the sound of the musicians was so muddy and undefined. At one point, a near constant low level feedback from the horn section threatened to completely destroy the mood.

After a short break (the brevity of which certainly caught out those who insisted on another trip to the bar), the group returned to perform some choice selections from Cale’s career. These included a wiry, claustrophobic interpretation of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ (intercut with ‘Rosegarden Funeral of Sores’), a somewhat dreamy ‘Amsterdam’ and an outstanding, clamorous, deeply weird deconstruction of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. In this short section of the concert, the band played so much more intuitively and intelligently, crafting thrilling and futuristic music. I would have appreciated more of this. Both orchestra and bombast return for a rapturously applauded ‘Hedda Gabbler’.

The concert has been well received elsewhere in the press, and the audience afforded Cale a rather uncritical standing ovation. Yet, to me, it all seemed rather perfunctory and ungenerous – an example of getting a job done rather than anything more artistically adventurous. The performance of ‘Paris 1919’, curiously unsatisfying as it was, didn’t even provide the warm glow of nostalgia one might reasonably expect. Perhaps there is a broader problem with this recent trend of performing classic albums in full – but if classical audiences pay to see complete symphonies, I don’t really see the difference. For a large portion of popular music’s history now, the album has been the nearest equivalent to a full composed work, and reports of its death are no doubt greatly exaggerated. Still, any attempt to produce a tasteful facsimile of the original work, rather than something living, breathing and challenging, ought to be avoided at all costs.