The desolate, post-industrial wasteland of Liverpool’s Clarence Dock wasn’t the most inviting setting for an open air concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’. With limited shade and a distinct lack of watering holes further adding to the unappealing nature of the area on an incredibly sweaty day.
Liverpool isn’t the greenest of cities, and those looking for an extra special performance to help them forget about the combination of heat, dust and 30-minute bar queues inside the event were largely left disappointed by a rather messy re-imagining of The Velvet Underground’s incredibly influential debut.
The Welsh-born, classically-trained, multi-instrumentalist John Cale, now in his 75th year, is one of only two surviving members from the core line-up which played on both ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ and its follow-up ‘White Light/White Heat’ before Lou Reed booted him out of the band. The other surviving member, drummer Maureen Tucker, was invited to play but reportedly declined due to her dislike of flying.
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With John Cale and his fondness for experimentation at the helm it would have been foolish to expect an overly nostalgic or even straightforward re-imagining in this one-off European performance for 2017. The original tracklisting was given a re-jigging which offered up an element of surprise to proceedings, while there was also a selection of tracks from ‘White Light/White Heat’ woven in to bulk up the set, an album that has also been very influential.
After a later than advertised start (with no effort made to communicate the reason for this with a very patient 11,000 strong crowd), the set began with a hurried, electronic-tinged version of what’s probably The Velvet Underground’s most well known track, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ which featured John Cale on vocals.
From there John Cale was joined by a series of six special guests, none of whom were introduced at any point leaving some audience members puzzled as to who exactly they were. In fact, John Cale was fairly quiet throughout, perhaps waiting until the following day when he was scheduled to appear in conversation at Sound City festival on the same dusty and stony grounds.
Guests included members of The Kills, Wild Beasts, Fat White Family, local veterans Clinic, as well as Nadine Shah and a lab coat sporting Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, each stepping forward to play their part but with varying degrees of success. The poor sound quality was certainly the biggest issue, but aside from a handful of memorable moments it was a very up and down performance with many of the more challenging tracks, perhaps surprisingly, stealing the show.
‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ featuring Wild Beasts vocalists each playing the part of Nico and her dual vocal tones was quite beautiful but one of a number of tracks hampered by sound issues. It was down to performances such as the ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ and ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ from ‘White Light/White Heat’, which both featured Gruff Rhys, to get a somewhat distracted audience back in the game.
After a poor rendition of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ featuring Lias Saoudi of Fat White Family (who some people mistook for Richard Ashcroft when he first appeared on stage), he more than redeemed himself with a fantastic effort on ‘Heroin’ which helped end the show strongly. It was a difficult track to follow but a 20-plus-minute, curfew breaking version of ‘Sister Ray’ from ‘White Light/White Heat’ featuring all of John Cale’s special guests at once came fairly close.
At £55 a ticket and the success of the Paris performance last year, you can’t blame people for expecting something more. A late start combined with sound issues, hit and miss performances, long queues and a depressing setting made what should have been a celebration of one of the most important albums of all time into a difficult experience for a large percentage of those in attendance. John Cale will likely have to make some changes for the upcoming shows in New York to avoid further disappointment.