On his 76th birthday John Cale’s ‘Futurespective’ was a celebration, jam session and experimental rock opera

The Velvet Underground legend was joined by the London Contemporary Orchestra, Cate le Bon and Actress

In black, the London Contemporary Orchestra sit like a collective who’ve fled North Korean, tentatively grooving to their new freedom. The night belongs to their liberator, a classical player from an isolated and little-understood nation himself, the Velvet Underground provocateur turned trip hop granddad, 76 today. You get glow sticks and instructions for singing happy birthday on your way in.

Mildly feverish goodwill flows from the outset and despite a lavish set up (Actress, Cate Le Bon and House Gospel Choir drift on and off throughout to join the LCO in a high-brow cladding for a central rock four-piece) this ‘Futurespective’ is a loose affair, not slick and over-rehearsed but rather a shoogly hybrid of rock opera, playbook flip-through and jam session.

A talent as strange and singular as John Cale, over five decades of altering contexts, can be expected to produce mixed results, from sublime experiments to bad electronica. As they get going, he’s manning two laptops and Kurzweil keyboard in dark suit jacket and Westwood-ish sarong. A looped sample rasps ‘passion instrument’ or maybe ‘fashion Instagram’ as YouTube-ripped, pixelated oscillations and naked hippies pulse on a huge backdrop.

While the Scott Walker-reminiscent particle collider ballads aren’t bad, with Actress’ modular squawks reeling between inaudible and overpowering, it’s on ‘Dying on the Vine’, ‘Big White Cloud’ and ‘Mr. Wilson’ that Cale hits his stride. ‘Half Past France’ makes good use of a milky fog of string section and ‘Helen of Troy’ is amplified by garage-funk brass, which leaves the absence in the set of ‘Paris 1919’ particularly galling.

The evening’s charm-ometer needle breaks the dial whenever Cale spasms with impromptu directions, duplicating and sometimes throwing off the conductor in an impish, muso way. Hailing from Wales before establishing himself in NYC, his vocals haven’t degraded over time, being extemporal mystic hill property – and he warmly garbles appreciation and solidarity for his compatriot Le Bon’s even more magical voice before ‘Amsterdam’.

‘Waiting for the Man’ is all art, no rock; plodding yet rushed and so fidgety that anyone trying to stay clean in here immediately rushes out to beat the crowd and go score – the night’s only Velvets song (the second night of this Barbican double-header, agonisingly, will get ‘Lady Godiva’ and ‘Stephanie Says’) must signal the coming of the end. And, leaving the en masse happy birthday and ‘Emily,’ it does.

John Cale @ Barbican, London, Friday 9 March 2018
Photos: Mark Allan/Barbican