It’s a little strange and a little beautiful to see John Cale performing with a full orchestra to a seated, opera-house audience. Dressed in an all-black suit brought into relief by a shock of white hair, Cale nods along with the band as he works his way through The Velvet Underground & Nico, which was released fifty years ago in March. In the intervening years, he has apparently become as comfortable with the Lincoln Center crowd as he was with the weirdos and punks who first saw these songs performed alongside screenings of Andy Warhol’s films. His viola is now accompanied by the sousaphone.
“I’m often reluctant to spend too much time on things past,” Cale writes in the program notes, “then, a time marker shows up.” But a time marker is not excuse enough for this event, and I was disappointed to find the album largely untouched by Cale and his (exceedingly talented) guest musicians. The tracks sounded both too similar and not similar enough to the studio cuts; I would have welcomed radical revision, or even nostalgic loyalty to the original sound, but the overriding sense was of half-hearted divergence.
Granted, there are occasional flashes of inspiration, as when one number ends with the inexplicable (and only partially audible) sound of a child’s voice babbling into a microphone. But this disruption was the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, this celebration is much too safe and munch too dull, shrouded under the auspices of the very establishment at which Cale and company once lobbed their discordant tunes.