Review: John Cale of the Velvet Underground, Still Bristling at 75

The piano-pounding stasis of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the solemnity of “Venus in Furs” came through; the drug-rush acceleration of each verse of “Heroin,” sung by Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, was recaptured, though more methodically. With the Wordless Music Orchestra on hand, there was a string section to underline Mr. Cale’s viola drones and a sousaphone to broaden the bass.

Caroline Polachek, from Chairlift, took on two Nico songs, “Femme Fatale” and “Sunday Morning,” with careful aplomb; Sky Ferreira sang “I’ll Be Your Mirror” with an alternate melody. Other variations were letdowns. Animal Collective tried a clockwork beat for “There She Goes Again,” and spatters of trap-style sampled percussion did little for “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” But the songs have stood up, and Mr. Cale did rekindle some of the old Velvet Underground anarchy in a long, messy, droning, stomping finale of “Sister Ray” from “White Light/White Heat.” Reed’s narrative of a violent, druggy, gender-bent night wasn’t upfront, but the raucous two-chord jam went on and on, and for a good long stretch, there was no telling what would happen next.


Sky Ferreira joined John Cale to perform the Velvet Underground song “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Credit Nicole Fara Silver for The New York Times

Mr. Cale left the Velvet Underground in 1968; he hasn’t stopped making music. Saturday’s concert, billed (eight months late) as Mr. Cale’s “75th Birthday Celebration,” offered no nostalgia, only intransigence. He opened the show with an extended orchestral drone that eventually turned into “Frozen Warnings” from the 1968 album by Nico that he arranged, “The Marble Index,” then segued into his own “Gravel Drive,” which has the singer longing to be “traveling the edges.”

Throughout the concert, drones stretched out, two-chord vamps moved with slow deliberation and the live instruments were mixed with blunt, brutal sampled sounds, as Mr. Cale ratcheted up the tension and darkness in his songs. “Half Past France,” once a wistful ballad, was remade with clouds of ominous orchestral dissonance; “Leaving It Up to You,” once a rocker, became even more queasy when turned into brittle, twitchy funk.

“I Keep a Close Watch,” which was a lost-love ballad with orchestral backing when Mr. Cale released it in 1975, was immeasurably more lonely supported by a few recurring piano notes and ticking percussion. “Wasteland,” which was close to folk-rock in its 2005 version, became a drone punctuated by sudden crashes and wallops on Saturday night, conjuring its “Volcanoes in the distance/Riverbeds run dry.”

Mr. Cale’s new songs still bristle. In “Pretty People,” a four-on-the-floor beat carried an exhortation to “rise up!” His band, electronics and orchestra pounded away at one droning chord through much of “What Is the Legal Status of Ice.” And in “Hatred,” a lurching, crunching march heaped with electronic noise and thick orchestral chords, Mr. Cale sang, “I’m stepping away from the edge.” No, he’s not.

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