So John Cale rolls into The Button Factory for the first night of a short tour of ‘these isles’, a show rescheduled from last May that postponed due to on-going post production work on his just released new album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the business-like, if polite, 90 minute set is weighted heavily towards songs from it, plus last year’s Extra Playful EP. Backed by a crack three-piece band of bass/guitar/drums, Cale plays keyboard for the majority of the evening, but strapping on electric or acoustic guitar for some songs.
When it came to older material, Cale seems determined to undermine audience expectation by revisiting some of the more arcane corners of his back catalogue at the expense of more well-known works. Thus, there are outings for rarely heard numbers like ‘Captain Hook’ (from Sabotage Live), ‘Pretorian Underground’ (from Caribbean Sunset) and ‘Satellite Walk’ (from Artificial Intelligence), as well as the marginally more fan-friendly ‘Guts’ and ‘Helen Of Troy’. This would seem to point to an emphasis on the frequently neglected, more synth-orientated techno-pop aspect of his oeuvre, a stress augmented by the guitarist Dustin Boyer’s eccentrically funky style – reminiscent of the Carlos Alomar and Robert Fripp moves on Bowie’s Berlin records and in keeping with the tone of the new album. Of that material, ‘Hey Ray’, ‘Scotland Yard’, ‘Catastrofuck’, ‘Whaddya Mean By That?’ and ‘Face To The Sky’ are the most memorable.
Starting at 8.45 and finishing at 10.15, with no support, Cale undoubtedly fulfills his contract, but there is no encore, hardly a way to make new friends. A glance at a retrieved setlist reveals that a planned ’Gun’, at least, has been abandoned, suggesting that, despite his detachment, the gig was still poised to be taken to the next level.
So what was his problem? Maybe, at 70, he’s just not that into it anymore, and was just going through the motions, although this is a studio maestro who still holds that playing live is best. Or maybe it was just that a funny thing happened on the way to the venue. Whatever the reason, of the many times I have seen John Cale live, this was the least compelling – leaving one to wonder whether his parting shot of ‘at least we had fun’ was genuine or sardonic.