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Live review: John Cale at UCLA's Royce Hall

October 1, 2010 |  5:06 pm

John Cale shows tenderness and emotion in performing his classic work at UCLA.

John_cale_lat_2_3_4On his 1973 orchestral-pop landmark, “Paris 1919,” John Cale pulled inspiration from all over the map: In addition to the title track and “Half Past France,” the album also contains “Andalucia,” “Antarctica Starts Here” and “Child's Christmas in Wales,” the last titled after a prose poem by Cale's fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas.

But Cale recorded “Paris 1919” here in Los Angeles not long after leaving the Velvet Underground, and Thursday night at UCLA's Royce Hall he brought the album home in a tender, seemingly heartfelt performance that demonstrated how interested in melody this veteran noisemaker remains.

Backed by his regular three-piece band and the UCLA Philharmonia, the 68-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist played all of “Paris 1919” (albeit in slightly altered sequence), joining a growing group of arty rockers who've taken to presenting their classic albums in concert. “Child's Christmas in Wales” was luscious and winsome, “Macbeth” fuzzy and amped-up. “Andalucia” had a pastoral vibe that summoned a sense of the dislocation Cale has said he experienced while living in L.A., far from his Old World roots.

Much of the original record's charm came from the fruitful interplay between Cale and the members of Little Feat, the L.A.-born boogie-rock combo that accompanied him. At Royce Hall, drummer Michael Jerome gave the music some understated swing, particularly during “Graham Greene,” in which his reggae-inflected groove contrasted tartly with the Philharmonia's strings; Joey Muñoz's jaunty trombone solo was an especially tasty choice too.

Cale dodged a handful of delicate high notes, his voice a craggier thing than it used to be. But Thursday's performance felt like more than a diminished take on a once-vital text; Cale was investigating the music's wounded romance, figuring out nearly 40 years later how much of it still rings true.

After an intermission, Cale returned to the stage in a pair of improbably snug-fitting white jeans and led his band through an hour or so of jittery, harder-edged folk-rock: pared-down versions of songs such as “Gideon's Bible,” from Cale's first solo album; and “Win a Few,” by his frequent collaborator Nico. Two younger alt-culture types, growly Mark Lanegan and sweet-voiced Ben Gibbard (the latter of Death Cab for Cutie), put in cameos that attested to Cale's influence.

Here he was most appealing when pushing toward something uglier and more intransigent than “Paris 1919” — his deranged art-funk take on “Heartbreak Hotel,” for example, or “Hedda Gabler,” for which the Philharmonia reappeared. In their encore, Cale and his sidemen offered up a long, needling rendition of “Pablo Picasso,” the Modern Lovers song from that band's Cale-produced debut. As in the Velvet Underground days, the music seemed to want to outlast the crowd's attention.

--Mikael Wood

Photo credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times