John Cale plays “Paris 1919”
Theatre Royal, Norwich, UK
Norfolk & Norwich Festival
Friday 14 May 2010
John Cale: keyboard, guitars
Dustin Boyer: lead guitar
Michael Jerome: drums
Josh Schwartz: bass
With The Heritage Orchestra
Set list and personnel from Here Comes The Flood blog
Child’s Christmas in Wales
Hanky Panky Nohow
The Endless Plain of Fortune
Half Past France
Antarctica Starts Here
Whaddya Mean By That
E Is Missing
Gun / Pablo Picasso
Walkin’ the Dog (Rufus Thomas)
John Cale on keyboards 1-9, 15, 16; acoustic guitar 10-14; electric guitar 17, 18. With full orchestra 1-9, 13-17. With horn section 10, 18.
From the Norfolk & Norwich Festival programme
I first heard the Velvet Underground on record in Norwich, and back then, I laboured with a primitive Dansette stereo, turning the controls all the way to one side to minimize the backing enough to decipher the lyrics of The Gift and Murder Mystery. I hadn’t been back to Norwich for years, but it was a fitting place to see John Cale. After the VU, his list of achievements went from producing Nico’s Marble Index and Desert Shore, doing the first album by The Stooges, and adding sympathetic backing to Nick Drake’s Bryter Later. And at this point we’re only at 1971! It goes on … Squeeze, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, Eno, Kevin Ayers
I was heavily into Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air in 1971, and bought the John Cale / Terry Riley collaboration Church of Anthrax the day it came out, and did the same with The Academy in Peril. But two other John Cale albums were on replay in the early 70s.
First was Vintage Violence, recorded with Grinderswitch, a band which included Garland Jeffries, legendary pianist Stan Szelest and Sandy Konikoff (who both played with The Hawks. aka The Band). This was straight ahead grade A pop music, as far from Sister Ray or Murder Mystery as you could get.
Then Cale followed it with the extraordinary Paris 1919 in 1973, and so eager was I to get a copy that I bought a US import. The basic backing group featured Lowell George and Ritchie Hayward from Little Feat, joined by Wilton Felder of The Crusaders on bass. John Cale played mainly organ. But the key to the album was the presence of an orchestra. Most rock band meets orchestra concepts from Deep Purple and Procul Harum onward use the orchestra to embellish (and impress). For a viola player, highly-qualified musician / arranger like Cale, the strings were an integral part of the songs. The only comparison is some of the later Beatles work and SMILE by Brian Wilson. That’s not only a comparison in style, I hasten to add, it’s a direct comparison in the quality of the album and the songs.
Paris 1919, CD sleeve
Paris 1919 became one of those quiet legends, suiting its languid dreamy ambience, and at the Norwich concert Cale was revisiting it and playing the album in full with The Heritage Orchestra. The concept had been aired in Cardiff in November 2009, then at the Royal Festival Hall in March 2010. Here it was part of the Norwich arts Festival.
I immersed myself in Paris 1919 for two weeks in advance. I had the LP, the CD and the remastered job with bonus tracks, the bonuses doubling the length with an outtake and alternative versions.
Norwich Theatre Royal isn’t a large venue, and wasn’t quite full … the premium price stalls were packed to the last three empty rows, then it filled again at the price drop point. The audience were surprisingly young, well, at least half were young. There was also a good gender balance, which often bodes well for a concert. The stage was dark, bible-black, but not by any means was it going to be starless. It was packed with music stands, the orchestra filed on with their tall thin and young conductor and made those orchestra noises, as they do. The electric part of the band were virtually hidden among them, with Cale’s keyboard set up stage left … the side that we were on. He strode on and it was straight into A Child’s Christmas in Wales, then straight through Paris 1919, skipping Macbeth. Macbeth is a T-Rex (!) style stomper, and quite often listening through the album the last two weeks, I’ve skipped it too. It doesn’t fit the flow. I guessed immediately that it would be moved to last place in the set as a rousing ender. Right. It makes sense, because on the vinyl LP it closed side one with a bang. As soon as you put both sides together as a continuous whole, it stands out like a sore thumb.
The sequence was the reverse of Brian Wilson’s SMILE tour, where they started with past glories and then did SMILE complete in the second half. John Cale moved straight to the point, and the sound balance was perfect. It was all different to the the original album too, I fancied there was less ‘organ drone’ effect in 2010, and more percussive keyboard work. The magnificent droning effect in the bass register was still there. You can never tell live, but I thought every track was improved. Standouts? Well, there were no weak points. I thought The Endless Plain of Fortune particularly leapt up a notch with the orchestra there and in your face. Graham Greene has a reggae lurch, intensified by the trombone player doing a solo that had come right out of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari’s Grounation(a legendary reggae triple album from the same era).
Words flow past, it’s the closest album to Van Dyke Park’s lyrics for Surf’s Up. They stick in little patches, no sense trying to connect them. The lines keep popping up three days later. There’s Nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door, I never answer panic knocking, falling down the stairs upon the law from Hanky Panky Nohow. What does Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship mean in A Child’s Christmas in Wales? And there’s How the Beaujolais is raining down on darkened meetings on the Champs Elysee in Paris 1919, or Welcome back to Chipping and Sodbury, you can have a second chance in Graham Greene, or Back in Berlin they’re all well fed … I don’t care … People always bored me anyway from Half Past France, or I’ll be waiting, later and later, Hoping the night will go away, Andalucia, castles and Christians, Andalucia, come to stay. If you don’t know the songs, it won’t make any sense. If it doesn’t, rush out and buy the album. The sleeve notes to the remastered version have a go at pulling the meaning out, something I’ve often attempted with lyrics myself, but never with ones as complex as this. Paris in 1919 was the end of World War One, but also the site of the Treaty of Versailles, sowing the seeds for World War II. Place names abound: Paris, Berlin, Andalucia, Barbary, Sebastopol, Adrianopolis, Dundee, Japan, Transvaal, Dunkirk, Norway, Antarctica. The notes quote Cale on the album as An example of the nicest way of saying something ugly. You tell me.
So to the interval.
John Cale said in a Melody Maker interview (which I found folded inside my copy of the LP, I’d long-forgotten putting it there) in April 1974:
It’s far too easy for me to compose at the piano. I get suspicious of songs I write on piano because, being classicly trained, it flows too quickly. But since I can’t play the guitar, I don’t know where the progressions are on anything. That maqkes it more interesting for me. You actually fall into the songs by accident … and I’m forced to keep things simple on the guitar, whereas I tend to elaborate unnecessarily on piano.”
The second set was the guitar set, keyboards abandoned. And no, there was no viola wizardry, which would have been out of place with the effect of massed strings at his fingertips. The second half launched with just the electric band plus the five-piece horn section for Hello There from Vintage Violence (I half hoped he’d simply run through that as well!) Almost the first time he spoke was to announce that the next two songs, Whaddya Mean By That and Catastrophic were new. For me, most of the second set was new anyway, and I could never have worked out the titles without the setlist from Here Comes The Flood. A little Googling on John Cale reveals that these songs were taken from across his vast catalogue. Hedda Gabler was from the Animal Justice EP, E is Missing is from the Five Tracks EP, Secret Corrida is from Walking on Locusts. 60/40, as he announced, is a Nico song, They left me vowing to explore further.
The first encore, I did know. It was Gun from the Fear album, when John Cale revived the attack of the VU. The full orchestra came on for it, and Cale shouted out the chords before they started. I assume this was a joke, suggesting the whole was improvised, though the part is simple. The Heritage Orchestra has a female string section with a male horn section, a division that seems par for the course, and as on Brian Wilson’s SMILE tour, it’s great to see violinists, viola players and cellists rocking out.
Gun (segueing into Pablo Picasso) was long and so good, that it had the audience going wild. It was a long floor stomp for a second encore, and internet notes say it wasn’t intended. I think it was intended, because it’s very simple. Stage lights on. House lights off. There will be an encore. House lights on? Head for the exits. The house lights stayed off.
The encore was Rufus Thomas’s Walking The Dog, so very familiar, and again a lengthy version, building in power. By the encores drummer Michael Jerome was very noticeable. All the way through his playing impressed me, but his power and quality in the two encores was breathtaking. He and guitarist Dustin Boyer have played with Cale for some time. Boyer in the Paris 1919 set was stepping into Lowell George’s shoes, and for lead guitarists, shoes don’t get any bigger than that. His playing was inventive and original right through. Josh Schwartz on bass was hidden from our viewpoint by the PA, but his presence all evening was also superb. John Cale has a superlative band.
If John Cale does this Paris 1919 show again, I’ll travel a long way to hear it. The days since have seen me digging out and airing my other John Cale CDs, and no doubt I’ll soon be buying more.