As pop's usual revenue streams grow increasingly parched, more and more bands of a certain vintage are choosing the heritage option of performing one of their classic albums in its entirety. Last week it was John Cale's turn to follow the likes of Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee into the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by a phalanx of musicians well-drilled in the subtleties of his landmark work.
Given that Cale was a founder member of the Velvet Underground, there were more than a few classic albums in contention, but 1973's sublime symphonic-rock opus Paris 1919 was the correct choice. It remains his most approachable work, although behind the beautiful melodies, cosseting strings and literary references lurks a haunted landscape of post-colonial decline stretching from Sebastopol to Andalucia, the Transvaal to Antarctica, in which field marshals, fading movie queens, civil servants, weary soldiers, expats and Enoch Powell slowly play out the inevitable endgames. Originally recorded with the UCLA Symphony Orchestra and members of the legendary swamp-funk combo Little Feat, it offered the classically trained Cale free rein to indulge his orchestral ambitions within a pop context.
Though fast nudging 70 years old, an astonishingly youthful-looking and dapper Cale stood throughout at his keyboard, small hand gestures signalling to his bassist, drummer and guitarist whilst a conductor alongside controlled the strings and horns of the Heritage Orchestra. These lent a certain belle époque grace to "The Endless Plain of Fortune", with the burring bottom end provided by the two bowed double basses, adding the undertow of menace, melancholy and nostalgia essential to the song's effectiveness.
The arrangement of "Andalucia", one of Cale's simplest and most affecting songs, didn't have quite the gossamer delicacy of the album version, but "Paris 1919" itself was a triumph, the prancing quadruplets bounding along with minimalist energy, evocative of the song's courtiers and cardinals jockeying for political position in the postwar world. Likewise, "Graham Greene" – whose stilted reggae gait seemed in 1973 a curious ethnic novelty – was delightfully delivered, stippled with pizzicato violins and further expanded by the addition of a trombone solo. "Half Past France" and "Antarctica Starts Here" then led proceedings gracefully to the climax of a re-positioned "Macbeth", which slightly lacked the careering momentum of the album version.
"Fear", meanwhile, tacked between sombre and manic in a way which became Cale's trademark during his Seventies solo heyday, its trenchant claim that "life and death are just things you do when you're bored" perhaps suggesting why the composer seems to have aged so little over the decades. As a constantly creative spirit, he seems immune to the boredom which might allow death to steal a march on his physical self.