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Showing World He Still Has Classic Touch : John Cale's musical explorations have taken him everywhere from Tanglewood to the Velvet Underground. His concert in San Juan Capistrano on Monday night provided a chance to critique him from two perspectives. : Pop review: The innate robustness remains in his voice, but the emphasis is on the poignant aspects of his music.

October 05, 1994|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — John Cale came to the Coach House on Monday to promote a new double-CD compilation of his post-Velvet Underground music. So he played a set with hardly any songs from the collection.

A typically contrary gesture from the 52-year-old musician, whose classical grounding and avant-garde sensibilities were instrumental in making the Velvets such a wellspring of inspiration for subsequent rock 'n' roll.

His own varied body of work has been treasured by a loyal cult that has followed his moves from rock psychodrama to orchestrated Dylan Thomas poems, from stately, folk-like ballads to ambitious song cycles.

But the small gathering at the Coach House didn't generate a very charged atmosphere, and the black-clad Cale, looking like a figure snipped from a '20s group photo of Dada artists, seemed polite and businesslike as he launched a comprehensive overview of his music.

While the Welshman's thick, distinctive vocal tone still has its innate robustness, the gasps and screams his fans enjoy so much sounded a little underpowered. His heart didn't really seem in them as he played down his demented side, omitting such psycho anthems as "Leaving It Up to You" and "Guts" and confining his signature rants to the tail ends of "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend," "Cable Hogue" and "Antarctica Starts Here."

Instead, he emphasized the haunting, melancholy aspects of his work, tapping its undercurrents of intrigue, Angst and nostalgia. "Style It Takes," from his 1990 reunion with Lou Reed for a musical biography of Andy Warhol, was especially poignant. Its wistful evocation of the Velvets' beginnings took on a bittersweet tone, as Cale is once again at odds with Reed and alienated from that legacy. Not surprisingly, the only non-Cale song in the show wasn't a Velvets staple, but Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

It would be nice to hear music of this richness and dimension performed with the extended dynamic range a full band might lend it, but Cale's piano provided a resourceful and propulsive accompaniment. And his meditative solo on "Heartbreak Hotel" transformed for a second time a song that he radically reinvented 20 years ago, showing that while his music has been neatly boxed for consumption, his creative spirit remains vital.

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