There’s no supporting act at The Button Factory tonight so John Cale’s 8.45pm entrance on stage takes the whole room by surprise. There’s no mistaking the former Velvet Underground man though. Sporting a shock of white hair and fetching grey, plaid jacket, the 70 year old does stand out in a crew. “Nice to see ya,” he says to the crowd in his polite, Welsh twang before taking his spot at his keyboard, opening with the fluttering keys of ‘Captain Hook’, an elongated three-part blockbuster with huge blues guitar riffs, inventive drum fills and grand vocals that don’t kick in until half way through the ten-minute-plus jam.
Taken from his 1979 album ‘Sabotage/Live’, ‘Captain Hook’ is an oldie, but the majority of the set is drawn from his recently released album ‘Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood’ and last year’s EP ‘Extra Playful’. The cold, skittering electronica of newer records like ‘Bluetooth Swings’ and ‘Face to the Sky’ are less engaging than the sweeping ‘Hook’, and Cale seems cold and detached in his performances. Primarily perched behind his piano, he dizzily fidgets with several scraps of paper between tracks, speaking only to announce songs title of the next and rarely, if ever, glancing out from beyond the stage. While performing ‘Scotland Yard’ he can even be seen reading lyrics of a sheet. He later emerges from behind his keys to play guitar on a few tracks, gently strumming along, leaving a lot of work to lead guitarist Dustin Boyer. For such an accomplished instrumentalist, he’s not interested in stretching himself tonight.
Cale’s got some jams – funky classic ‘Helen of Troy’ or grimy riff-propelled ‘The Hanging’, for example – but too many songs fall flat on the rather downbeat crowd, who offer no reaction to the announced titles. One wonders if they expected a load of Velvet tracks spliced into the setlist. Either way, crowd and artist share no bond, Cale offering a sly dig before exiting the stage. “We had fun, anyway,” he smirks before slinking off.
Seconds after the band disappear back stage, drummer Michael Jerome re-emerges signalling to the sound engineer with the throat-slitting motion that Cale will not be performing an encore. The room does manage a tame call for him to come back out, but it’s not to be. Just to confirm that an encore was abandoned, we manage to snag a setlist and, indeed, a song at the very bottom did go unplayed – the track ‘Gun’ from Cale’s 1974 album ‘Fear’. It’s also followed by the word “etc”. What tracks did “etc” refer to? Who knows? Perhaps the Velvet Underground songs many thought they’d hear (though set lists from other recent gigs suggest tracks like ‘Dirty Ass Rock 'n' Roll’ were more likely). Regardless, on this night there are plenty of disappointed faces leaving the venue.
Words by Dean Van Nguyen