John Cale has played an important part in the musical development of the latter half of the twenty-first century, being part of infuential groups and movements, producing some major works and delivering an extensive back catalogue of solo recordings. After moving to America to persue his compositional desires in the avant-garde in the early 1960s he later became part of La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate, ambassadors of a drone movement which would have some influence on the experimental activities of The Velvet Underground, the group he formed alongside Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed in the mid 60s. The Velvet Underground would make Cale famous through albums such as The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light, White Heat and VU but after internal disruptions Cale left in 1968 and moved to production — Nico’s Marble Index and The Stooges eponymous debut being his first works in that field. Although he would continue producing and put his talents to some major punk/new wave groups/albums Cale has, since the arrival of Vintage Violence in 1970, recorded an extensive collection of solo records and several collaborations (such as with Terry Riley and Brian Eno), continuing to showcase his fascinating knack for songwriting.
Circus Live has its inception in 2005’s blackAcetate album and the coming together of Cale with musicians Dustin Boyer (guitar), Joseph Karnes (bass) and Michael Jerome (drums), a group which seemed to also, importantly, meld perfectly in the live environment. Cale obviously felt he had found a new group with whom he could tackle a quasi-Gratest Hits slice of the large body of work he had been a part of, resulting in the Circus tour and this well-produced double-CD document.
“Femme Fatale”, features, cleverly and powerfully merged with a fascinating, brooding b-side from 1980
The majority of Cale’s material is more straightforward and song-based though tinged with avant garde influence and a constant striving to introduce new elements and incorporate different ideas. A drone starts the album, leading into the legendary washing violas of VU’s “Venus In Furs”, and further experimental drones appear on the second CD, opening and closing the “Amsterdam Suite” and the overall set. An influence of painted art can also be felt in Cale’s work as shown by two songs about artists, “Magritte” and “Pablo Picasso”. The former showcasing dark undertones, a left-field approach to balladry, and interesting orchestral arrangements, several elements all key to Cale’s solo career. The latter, originally by Jonathan Richman, but appearing on Cale’s 1975 Helen of Troy, offers example of how some of the songs are reinterpreted here on Circus Live, taking a distinctly more heavy-rocking tone, as does that same album’s title track here, the glam and funk-strains toned down and rocked out. “Picasso” also jams over twelve minutes into a riff and refrain from “Mary Lou”, the session out-take track appearing on the 1977 Guts compilation.
Further lenghty ambition is found on the already-originally ambitious “Gun” (off the Eno/Manzanera-produced Fear) which also clocks in over twelve minutes, moving through different moods and an array of sounds and noises. Cale’s rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” originally featuring on Slow Dazzle also makes an appearance, though here slower, quieter and much more emotional, linking to the late experimental/interpretive works of other long-careered masters like Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.
it fails to deliver a satisfying sense that you’ve had anything near as good an experience as someone actually at the live show
Another Velvet Underground favourite, “Femme Fatale”, features, cleverly and powerfully merged with a fascinating, brooding b-side from 1980 “Funeral Rosegarden Of Souls”. And recent production techniques as used by The Neptunes can be felt in the workings of blackAcetate’s tracks like “Outta The Bag” and “Hush”, the electronics and grooves offering further example of Cale’s ability to evolve with the continuing changes and trends of the music industry.
Overall though, despite the twinklings of electronics or experimental augmentations of orchestration for example, the collection of songs here on Circus do come together as near-straightforward rock songs and ballads (“Dirty Ass Rock and Roll”, “Walking The Dog”, “Buffalo Ballet”, “Style It Takes”, “Woman” and “Zen” for example), albeit with hints of darkness and strangeness dotted within. This isn’t obviously a bad thing but is noteworthy for those who only know Cale through the Velvets and avant-garde work. There are some interesting reinterpretations here which obviously cant be found anywhere else, however, you can’t help but feel that the originals generally stand up much better and will invite more listens. Cale’s vocals aren’t bad but have perhaps been stronger or better recorded, and although the production does capture the overall sound well, it’s another one of those live albums which fails to deliver a satisfying sense that you’ve had anything near as good an experience as someone actually at the live show. There’s definitely something to offer here and tracks like “Helen Of Troy” and “Venus In Furs” as well as recent classics like “Look Horizon” (originally recorded with Lemon Jelly’s Nick Franglen) are always going to be great to listen to. Although containing a decent slice of Greatest Hits, those who aren’t big John Cale fans already shouldn’t choose Circus Live as an entry point, those who (keep a) close watch on his work though will probably be interested.