footsteps on a gravel drive

John Cale has a new release, Circus Live, a box set with two CDs documenting live European performances last year, and a DVD containing footage from rehearsals for that tour (including five complete songs for an acoustic set, and excerpts from another five electric tracks, along with studio chatter, coffee-fetching, etc.), plus a creepy video for a new track “Jumbo in tha Modernworld” (Gollum-like critters devouring everything in sight), a remix of “Gravel Drive,” and a rerecording of “Big White Cloud.” Unfortunately, as far as I can tell there are currently no plans for a US release, so you’ll have to spring for the import. Fortunately, it’s reasonably priced: my copy originally cost me $28, including shipping (not bad for two CDs, a DVD, and an extensive booklet). The live CDs are pretty fine, spanning Cale’s career and showing the depth of his catalog (as well as his respect for Lou Reed as a songwriter – he covers “Venus in Furs” and a massively reworked “Femme Fatale” in a medley with his own “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores” – despite their everpresent interpersonal tension). The DVD is a fine document, showing Cale in a surprisingly cheery mood amongst his bandmates: at one point, he wanders out of the studio only to return wearing a “Jason”-like goalie mask to perform “Ghost Story.” Cale is capable of being quite frighteningly intense in live performance: never mind the infamous chicken story, I recall seeing him in the early ’80s, utterly coked out of his mind, playing “Leaving It Up to You” with such intensity that the audience collectively stepped back several feet as he lurched toward the microphone, growling that line about taking someone apart, “right now – you fascist!” But here, when “Ghost Story” is done, Cale removes the mask, and he’s grinning like a mischievous schoolboy, perhaps having spooked the camera crew.

Curiously, given two full CDs of live material, the DVD tracks are among the finest songs in the set. A warning to Americans (and denizens of other nations using NTSC format): the DVD’s in PAL format, so unless you have a DVD player that’s both region-free and capable of converting PAL to NTSC, you’re out of luck. (Fortunately such players are readily available for as little as thirty bucks.) At least two of them deserve a wider airing as songs than they’re likely to receive as DVD exclusives, so here’s my bit to help that happen.

During his career, Cale’s recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” multiple times (another version is on the second CD in this set), each recording increasingly deconstructive of the best-known Elvis version, to the point that on this live rehearsal take, the song’s nearly as gone as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was in the hands of the Residents. Brilliant stuff, if you ask me.

Nearly opposite in musical and emotional terms, the acoustic rehearsal yields this lovely extended version of “Gravel Drive.” While I think there are some electronic effects being triggered by the drummer, that drone is bassist Joseph Karnes bowing harmonics on adjacent strings of an upright bass.

John Cale “Heartbreak Hotel” (Circus Live – DVD 2007)
John Cale “Gravel Drive” (Circus Live – DVD 2007)

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