John Cale And Band, The Garage, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Between rock and a hard place
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The Independent Culture

Talk about swings and roundabouts. This week, Nick Cave, a former drug-fuelled hellraiser who can now croon with stately aplomb, starts a stripped-back tour of heated halls. John Cale, meanwhile, a former drink- and drug-fuelled rocker turned art-rock composer with a stately vocal style, turns his back on such plush venues as the Queen Elizabeth Hall (the venue he played when he was last in London) to cram his crowd of followers into the dingy rock den of the Garage.

The prompt for this is the Velvet Underground co-founder's back-to-basics latest album. blackAcetate: marks a retreat from the sample-driven forays of its predecessor, Hobo Sapiens, in its mix of dirty-ass rock'n'roll with polished production values. It's the avant-Neptunes, and as such, a bit rockist, a bit funky, a bit electro and a bit clever. And it's also a bit surprising, coming from a 63-year-old man who turned his back on rock's wild ways in the Eighties.

Still, with his just-out-of-bed hair and band of eager young beavers, Cale is in rock mode tonight. That much is asserted from the opener, a cover of Rufus Thomas's "Walking the Dog", which featured on the 1979 album Sabotage (Live).

At times this evening you suspect that Cale isn't simply rocking out but trying on the idea for size, experimenting with it; you get that kind of two-way traffic with Cale, the avant-classical intellect with a rock'n'roll past and the leather-trousered rocker who excels at composition. The clarity of Cale's diction distinguishes his rockist diversions on some songs, investing lyrics such as "She broke the needle" from "Walking the Dog" with great presence and a flash of knowingly wild-eyed malice. Likewise, he booms the "Mercy, mercy, mercy me" of 1975's "Helen of Troy" with a fierce flourish that seems to channel at least something of his more savage late-Seventies self.

But it's questionable whether all the songs transcend their rockisms. Once you get past the excitement of seeing an icon up close in a tiny venue, kicking out the jams like a man half his age (come to think of it, like Cale half his age), you're left with a slew of grinding outros that might fit comfortably on the tail end of Later... With Jools Holland.

Cale's back-catalogue pickings are nicely broad- ranging but they tend to tap a similar vein. Sabotage (Live) is recalled again on the rugged riff of "Evidence", while 1996's Walking on Locusts album gets a nod in a rudely rough "Dancing Undercover". The Velvets' "Femme Fatale" becomes a dirge via smoky keyboards and gravelly vocals, although there is something nicely Leonard Cohen-ish in the way Cale drags out its "Everybody knows" lyric. From blackAcetate:, a gruff "OuttaThe-Bag" sounds tired without its studio version's falsetto vocal. And from Slow Dazzle, "Dirty-Ass Rock'n'Roll" is drawn out with some thrillingly nimble-fingered but somewhat Jools-ish boogie-time piano.

Still, Cale wouldn't be the legend he is if he didn't have something to floor his reverential audience with. From Locusts, "Set Me Free" is graceful and luminous. Then there's three tunes from Hobo Sapiens: "Look Horizon" and "Magritte" are given detailed and controlled treatments, the band shading the tunes with subtlety as Cale intones against the deep-red backdrop; "Things" proves that he can make light of a brisk pop song, flirting with the mainstream more successfully than on blackAcetate:. And on the lovely melody of the classic "Buffalo Ballet", a soft crooning Cale sounds for a few minutes like he wrote the blueprint for latter-day Nick Cave. An overlong jam closes the show, however, tagged on to the end of a caustic take on the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso".

Tonight was a mixed bag, then: too much rock, not enough art. At best, though, enough of Cale's exploratory spirit surfaced to suggest that his next gig could be something else altogether. For a man in his sixties, Cale's ability to reinvent himself is some feat.

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