The last time that John Cale toured, it was as part of a semi-acoustic duo, a faintly disappointing format because it encourages his portentous, overwrought aspects. So it's gratifying to see the Velvet Underground founder take to the road with a four-piece electric band, allowing the full expression of his rockier side.
The Glee Club is normally a comedy venue, but apart from a few scattered quips by Cale, the mood was of all-pervading drama. Seats were ranged at the sides, but the open-standing space right in front of the band gave a feeling of intimate communion for the many lone males - of all ages - who made up the demographic.
Having just reached 60, Cale is in remarkable trim. He's also relaxed and easy with the audience, rarely speaking but in good humour throughout. He conducts proceedings from behind a rack of front-facing keyboards, backed by drums, bass and lead guitar, with an auxiliary key player at the rear.
Much of the night's material is unfamiliar, previewing the contents of Cale's imminent album, Academy in Peril, which has been co-produced with Lemon Jelly's Nick Franglen. He also premieres tunes from the current "5 Tracks" EP, revealing a new concern with the shaping and layering of sampled sounds. Sudden eruptions of dense scurf interrupt the conventional development of "Verses", building up noise into ebbing and flowing waves. The EP's best song, however, is "Waiting For Blonde", a mercifully unglib take on September 11, which follows a northward subway journey from Canal Street. Cale intones it in his distinctive deadpan, gathering intensity as the rumbling layers amass. Unfortunately, "E Is Missing" fares less well, with its "Noel's not here, Noel's not there, Noel is nowhere" refrain sounding far too obvious as it rises out of a forest of samples.
The only unashamedly nostalgic moment of the evening comes when Cale hoisted his viola for "Venus in Furs", sliding his solo modestly in beside the chugging guitars. When he switched to semi-acoustic guitar and improvised sections in the middle of the 90-minute set, however, it started to sag.
It's all about pacing, though, as Cale then strapped on his scarred and blistered electric axe for a sustained, frenzied climax. The final onslaught seemed to last for more than 20 minutes, with Cale strafing out dirty, simple riffs that were just as compelling as his lead guitarist's more extroverted howls. The members of the band proved expert when it came to dramatic variation, giving the feeling that they held massive, rationed power in reserve. An upcoming strong run of European dates should ensure that they and Cale are still wired for the Union Chapel gig in London on 14 July.