Like his peers Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, influential Welsh musician John Cale is refusing to let time’s march slow him down. Hitting the stage at Wales Millennium Centre to celebrate his 80th birthday, special guests joined Cale for a set that commemorated nearly six decades of sonic experimentation that has helped shape modern music.
Perched behind his keyboard, Cale’s fine voice and hypnotic compositions were given further depths by the luxuriant strings of the Sinfonia Cymru orchestra and warm voices of the House Gospel Choir. Backdropped by a psychedelic display of neon hanging circles, Cale let his brilliant music do the talking, interacting with his audience with just the occasional “thank you” and introductory song titles.
An auspicious preview of forthcoming solo album Mercy came by way of its forlorn title track. “I’m looking for mercy more and more,” came Cale’s plaintive cry. Those hoping for an extensive showcase of songs from his tenure with avant-garde psych-rock pioneers the Velvet Underground might have left disappointed. I’m Waiting for the Man’s propulsive chug was its sole representative, as Cale focused on the sugary melodies of 1973’s Hanky Panky NoHow and abrasive soundscapes found in a pared-down, synth-heavy Half Past France.
The smoky vocals of Cate Le Bon, who previously collaborated with Cale on stage at the Barbican in 2018, joined for two tracks from 1970’s people-pleasing, Vintage Violence: the lyrical guitar licks and doo-wop harmonies of Gideon’s Bible and the sumptuous drama of Ghost Story both proving an early-set triumph.
Elsewhere, Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield played soaring takes on Buffalo Ballet and Ship of Fools from 1974’s Fear with his acoustic guitar. But of all Cale’s special guests, it was perhaps Gruff Rhys, whose band Super Furry Animals mixed traditional songcraft with techno, proved Cale’s most kindred spirit.
And while fans might have expected Cale to play his melodic version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, he instead chose his eerie electronic cover of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel from 1975’s Slow Dazzle.
Deep cut Ooh La La drew the evening to a sudden halt. As the curtain dropped and the lights came up, an audience member could be overheard muttering, “Well, that was a bit of an abrupt ending”. John Cale has spent a lifetime doing things his way. He isn’t going to change now.
John Cale plays Playhouse Whitley Bay on Mon and Birmingham Town Hall on Thurs, then touring. Tickets