Review: John Cale, HMV Picture House, Lothian Road

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It is 7.59pm on a Saturday night and finding a vantage point inside the Picture House is much easier than expected. Perhaps the early start time has caught people by surprise? It’s plausible. Nevertheless, by the time John Cale wrapped things up almost two hours later, there was still plenty space to lay down a blanket and picnic basket.

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But then, this was no teddy bears’ picnic.

A somewhat cold, systematic run-through of songs from new album, Shifty 
Adventures In Nookie Wood, the former Velvet Underground member discarded said material one-by-one, introduced with little other fanfare than “This is...”

Stood behind an electric piano, with his silvery grey bed-head and protruding stare, the 70-year-old looks like some mad scientist who accidentally mistook his white lab-coat for a farmer’s plaid shirt instead.

“I lost my memory today,” he laments on opener Captain Hook – a discomforting, yet intriguing tale about the decay of British colonialism – before announcing “This is Perfection”, another slice of hook-laden depressed-pop that received healthy applause from an otherwise 
unhealthy-populated audience. Cale and that other poet Bob Dylan are of a similar age, yet while Dylan’s voice has virtually disappeared croakily into the ether, Cale’s singing voice is still meaty and powerful. I Wanna Talk To You, for instance, hints at what Jim Morrison might have sounded like had he not bit the big one back in 1971, whereas the dreamy Whaddya Mean By That? on the other hand, resembled that other mystical genius Captain Beefheart’s softer, more melodic output.

Tunes rolling by with conveyor belt regularity, then; only when something went wrong did anyone’s attention truly alert. Halfway through a song, Cale stopped his band dead in their tracks. The drummer received a frosty glare from his employer and it looked as if something unplanned might actually happen. A pregnant pause hovered around the room, then bang! The band all comes back in on time – Cale, it seems, is just fooling with us.

OK, so the enigmatic Welshman is one of those perennially cool characters who never really go out of fashion. A little more of the human element, though, certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss.