John Cale “When Past and Future Collide” was part of the Melbourne Festival 2010. John Cale + Band + Orchestra Victoria performed Paris 1919 live (not that I am familiar with that album) and a few other songs.
Many rock musicians like to play with orchestras, it fills out the sound and makes them look sophisticated and/or rehabilitated. But John Cale is different because he can write for an orchestra and all those years studying with the British composer Cornelius Cardew, means that this is not some trite, conventional orchestration. (“When I was studying composition I was completely unaware that the Rolling Stones were playing in some nearby pub. Instead, I met Cornelius Cardew, who opened up to me the world of the London base of the Fluxus movement…” John Cale, Autobiography). The orchestration was excellent and the combination of the string section with the electric guitar was exceptional. There was a very big string section (to be expected from John Cale, who plays the viola), no woodwind and a small brass section consisting of two French horns, a trumpet and trombone player who played an excellent gutsy part in one song. It wasn’t just John Cale and songs with complete orchestration. After the intermission he did return to playing more rocking numbers with just the band.
I’m a fan of John Cale and I played his parts in a Velvet Underground tribute band that I was in with Ron Rude, Frank Borg and others back in the 1990s. I have seen him in concert before; John Cale performances are always cathartic (cathartic I must note is a medicine that causes the emptying of the bowels). There is something cathartic about a great musician playing Jonathon Richmond’s “Picasso” at the State Theatre and repeatedly singing: “Nobody called Pablo Picasso an arsehole”. Maybe I needed the therapy after this week but that’s another story.
John Cale is the dictionary definition of punk – look up The Complete Oxford English Dictionary. A quote from NME: “John Cale was the first punk”, or some such phrase, is the example of how the word ‘punk’ is used (don’t quote me on this in your school work, look up the dictionary for yourself). John Cale was still looking like a punk, even though he was wearing a coat and tie, with peroxide blond hair with a large pink patch on one side.
The concert was like a collision between past and future. There was an intermission, unheard of in rock’n’roll (“We can play one long set or two sort sets” Lou Reed – Velvet Underground Live 69) but there were two encores (strange in the world of classical music but typical of a rock concert). The stage manager brought out a big bouquet of flowers to John Cale at the start of the second encore. I would have liked the lead guitarist and conductor shake hands, like the tradition of the lead violin and conductor shaking hands, to complete this collision between past and future traditions. The final encore was Chorale from Sabotage Live – a beautiful song that proved, even at the end of the concert, that age hasn’t weakened Cale’s fine Welsh singing voice.
The audience spanned all generations from the very young to people that made me feel young. Such is the attraction of this punk. I was glad to be among them.