mon 22/04/2024

John Cale, Festival of Voice, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

John Cale, Festival of Voice, Cardiff

John Cale, Festival of Voice, Cardiff

Former Velvet joins Gwenno and guests in a leftfield turn for the Land of Song

Cool Cymru: Charlotte Church and John CaleOwen Mathias Photography/

“Are you enjoying Wales, John?” shouts a fan, eventually. Our returning hero has remained taciturn and all but static at his keyboard throughout an epic show that spans one of popular music’s most interesting and influential careers. Cale affects to have misheard. “Am I rejoining Wales?” he ponders. “I certainly hope so. I feel like I’m rejoining every time I’m here.”

Singer-songwriter, composer, record producer and (of course) founding member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is an inspired choice to open Cardiff’s new Festival of Voice, a biennial attempt to catapult the Welsh capital into the premier league of city arts festivals. The inaugural line-up suggests a cutting-edge, contemporary take on the age-old ‘land of song’. Who better, then, to kick things off than this veteran of the avant-garde and genuinely cool Cymro?

GwennoAnd who better to provide support than Gwenno (pictured above), former Pipette and current queen of off-kilter indie-electronica with strings. She is promoting her first solo effort, Y Dydd Olaf, named after Owain Owain’s late 1960s dystopian novel about people being turned into clones, and she wastes no time in reminding us that voice is not just an instrument but a weapon: one song is dedicated to Chelsea Manning; another is about “media manipulation”; closer “Amser” is an adaptation of a poem in Cornish by her father. Gwenno’s voice hovers low in the mix, powerful but understated, occasionally soaring. She has potential to be a Celtic Björk – one to watch, certainly.

Cale’s arrival and the opener Time Stands Still set a darker tone: brooding, haunting, challenging. Dressed from head to toe in black, Cale cuts a lugubrious figure, in the mould of his contemporaries Dylan and Cohen: “I don’t want to hear about Christmas / Or dancing in the snow,” he sings. To begin, the set is dominated by material from Cale’s new M:FANS record, a reworking of his own 1982 album Music For a New Society. Hearing “Endless Plain of Fortune” in 2016 is a reminder that Cale was – and still is – as much an innovator as Bowie, if much less a showman. For “Chinese Envoy” Cale is backed by strings; for “Thoughtless” by a big, dirty brass section. “If You Were Still Around” sees the first appearance of the House Gospel Choir. His brilliant band (bass, drums and guitar) are present throughout.

Michael Sheen, John Cale, Charlotte ChurchWhat holds it all together, as is only proper in the circumstances, is Cale’s voice. By turns familiar and unfamiliar, rich and strange, powerful and soulful, strident and melancholy, the mix betrays a biography: Welsh heritage, London art school, New York cool. The Velvets’ “Sunday Morning”, on which the bass player saws his strings with a bow, draws a huge cheer.

Then there are the guests. Michael Sheen appears without fanfare for an avant-garde rendition of the Dylan Thomas poem “And death shall have no dominion”, and Charlotte Church (pictured above with Sheen and Cale) gives a wonderful, near-impromptu backing vocal performance later in the set. This is a very different kind of Cool Cymru to the brash flag-waving of the late 1990s. World-class talent no longer needs to shout to be heard.

Despite his assured place in the canon, tonight is confirmation that Cale’s oeuvre exists in the dark underbelly of rock’n’roll. It’s a difficult listen at times. “Wasteland” is machine-gun drums against a backdrop of apocalyptic imagery. Progenitor, experimenter, transgressor: yes. Pop star: no. And it seems the Cardiff audience wouldn’t have it any other way. Presented at the end with a wooden sheep, Cale taps his heart to indicate his gratitude and shuffles off, finally a smile cracking his wizened features. Rejoining Wales? When the land of song just took a leftfield turn, who wouldn’t?

It's a reminder that Cale was – and still is – as much an innovator as Bowie


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters