This was the first of two nights John Cale played at the Barbican as part of this year's Convergence Festival and also to celebrate his 76th birthday. The shows were billed as being A Futurespective with the London Contemporary Orchestra and House Gospel Choir as well as John's band and an un-named DJ circuit bender type guy who pulled wires out and twiddled knobs etc.
Having managed to get a seat in the 4th row centre I was so close to the action that with such a large ensemble (with sometimes up to 40 people on-stage) I couldn't always see who was playing what. Also, for much of the concert John Cale was obscured behind the music stand on his Keyboards set up so I spent a good amount of time looking at the orthopaedic boot he had on his right foot, which seemed to cause him a bit of pain and trouble moving around. However, it didn't impinge on the performance at all.
The Orchestra came on first and once they were ready, John plus his band and the DJ guy appeared to open the show with a long, slow, ambient noise mainly played by the band and the DJ who was carefully adjusting plugs and twiddling things as the noise slowly became more recognisable as Over Her Head. It built really well and had me wondering if this was going to be another one of John's more challenging gigs, with the big visuals behind being almost set to begin with as almost a fit inducing flashing light sequence there was a reason to be a little worried.
That thought was soon put aside with the Orchestra coming to prominence on Dying On The Vine: a song that has grown over the years since it first came out in the mid 80's. With the strings swelling, the it really sounded very fine and John's voice was in pretty great shape too.
The Choir then came on stage as the orchestra started a slow build at the beginning of Hedda Gabbler. Cale's Keyboards were sounding good but the drummer, Deantoni Parks, was also adding some techno noises as well as drumming as Dustin Boyer let loose on the guitar and then after the second chorus the choir came in and just took things to another level. The lyrics went round and round and they dovetailed nicely with John's vocals and when one of the Sopranos sang counter to the rest of the choir it was just magical.
As the choir left the stage again, John Introduced E Is Missing as being about Ezra Pound which worked nicely with some brass stabs adding to what the band were doing and the slight ambient noises that came in and out during the song.
Helen Of Troy was next with John switching to guitar for the first time for a very full, lush orchestral treatment. The brass worked magnificently and then as the vocals finished they went into a very long outro during which the orchestra slowly but surely dropped out. First were the strings and then I think the Timpani before they were left with the brass and band for a while before Deantoni gave a nod for the brass to drop out and then his drums and it was done. A true highlight of the show.
As John went back to his keyboards the Choir came back on and the backdrops went into a splatter mode. They started to play Big White Cloud that was just beautiful with all the strings and the choir singing the chorus over and over. It really sounded special.
As the Orchestra began Half Past France the choir slowly left the stage once more as Cale told this well-worn tale of being on tour in Europe for the first time in the early 70's. It was almost chilled out as the strings swirled around the Barbican.
John switched back to the electric guitar for Leaving It Up To You which also featured some really forceful Timpani. Still, it was far less angry than it used to be live, sounding almost elegiac in places.
Cale was back on the Keyboards for Magritte and the DJ also returned to do some serious plug pulling and manoeuvring as a counter balance to the swelling strings and the less nuanced side of Dustin Boyer's guitar playing. This one had more ambient noises than most of the set.
Cate Le Bon came on with an acoustic guitar to sing Buffalo Ballet with John and I have to say I didn't think she added much to it at all. I'd have preferred the choir singing to what she did but the addition of the acoustic guitar did leak to the mix nicely.
We then got the orchestral masterpiece of the evening with Mr Wilson; accompanied by film of Brian and his brothers surfing and cavorting as the song unfolded amid swirling strings and great brass. John really seemed to be loving playing this song live and seemed to want to joust with Dustin as his guitar solo got going, building to another big highlight in the set.
John then worried many long term fans that this was going to be a short set by playing Close Watch which for many years was his set-closing song. Tonight, though, it came in around the two thirds mark. It was lush and orchestral and just the beautiful love song it is.
Next we got the first new song of the night. I noted it down as We Are All, but I'm informed it's called Chums Of Dumpty. It allowed the DJ to do his thang on it as well as lots of brass. It was interesting and cool to hear the anger and bile and claustrophobia within it.
Then Cate Le Bon came back out and John joined her out front so they could both play acoustic guitars and sing Amsterdam together as a duet, accompanied by the strings and minimal drums. Quite beautiful overall, even if Cate's vocals again marked her out as the weakest singer of the evening.
Cale was back on his keyboards for a brilliant version of Villa Albani, transformed from its meat and potatoes rock original into an orchestral questioning of power and how it's wielded. Great to hear this mid 80's song really come to life.
We then got the only song of the night to be played alone by the band. It was a stripped-back rumble through I'm Waiting For the Man that was far less powerful than I've seen John play it in the past. It sounded good but lacked some of the cold turkey and cold war paranoia that John used to infuse it with.
Then the choir came back on and for the first time all night John introduced the next song, Pretty People, which is another song from his forthcoming album. It was a full-on soul gospel rouser and call to arms to make the world a better place that sounded pretty wonderful and provided a great way to close the set.
Of course the Barbican demanded an encore, even if it took them all a good while to leave the stage in the first place. Nonetheless, they came back out and as had been organised by some of the fans everyone waved glowsticks at John and started to sing Happy Birthday to him. The choir hearing this took over and took it to the next level with John with a big grin on his face conducting them and us.
The encore kicked off with another new one that he introduced as Hatred. It took a good poke at all the hatred and madness around us in the world and it may also have a dig or too at a certain Orange person. It did feel odd to have finished the set and started the encores with new songs but then John has never worried about conforming too much at all.
They finished up with a rather lush and brilliant version of Emily: a song I can't ever remember hearing played live before and it was a lovely way to end a quite brilliant night's music and a revelatory selection of songs.