Apart from the Velvet Underground reunion shows, I can't remember a John Cale project getting as much publicity as this one has. There have been interviews on the Today programme and an interview on Channel 4 news from the rehearsals, most of which centred around the fact that he was collaborating with Liam Young who is a Speculative Architect and having read the descriptions of what one of those is I'm still not sure what he really does.
The other big deal about this show was that it had was to be a dual performance of drones that would interact with the music and be flying overhead in the theatre above the safety net that had to be put in for our safety. It was also deemed necessary to perform in a venue with surround sound and the fact that the Barbican theatre is also a nuclear bunker can only have helped to add to the questions we ask ourselves of how the modern drones that are normally used for evil can be put to good use instead.
On getting into the Barbican Theatre (built 4 floors down in the bowels of the Barbican when in the 1950's they transformed one of London's largest bomb sites into a modern utopian concrete housing estate in the heart of the city) I was struck by just how futuristic this theatre still looks; especially while the curtain is still up. The curtain is actually some sort of metal or plastic door, almost like a spaceship that - once all the warnings to turn off our mobile phones to not interfere with the drones and not to use flash photography - splits in the middle to reveal the band already onstage behind the netting and the orchestra pit open the other side of that part of the netting.
The show starts with an instrumental drone piece with Cale on Viola. It's haunting and also very clear that the hall has very good acoustics indeed. About halfway through the first two drones emerge from the orchestra pit and rise up as if to introduce themselves to us they dance about a bit and disappear. The band then slowly begin the opening bars of Mercenaries (Ready For War) that is all low slung and threatening.John then starts to sing in a falsetto that somehow makes this song sound even more disturbing than it might. The sense of unease is added to as the first of the larger drones appears and has some weird decorations on it that make it look like a spaghetti monster. It's very odd.
Next, we get the first surprising song choice of the evening with a very bleakly tense and taut version of If You Were Still Around from Music For A New Society. The band augmenting the original's stark organ with some almost funky bass and squelchy drums as the drones rise up above us and we feel the backwash chilling us out against the stark black and white light show. The bigger drone this time seemed to be an Easter egg with lips. Most odd and yet a compelling and even though this was a quieter number I couldn't hear the incessant chatter of the non-fans in front of us as the surround sound enveloped us.
December Rains was far deeper sounding than on the Nookie Wood album. It had an almost funky hip hop edge to it that I'm not certain if it worked or not and as the Drones were adding to the music. They were more just an entertainment as the surprise element had quickly worn off but they did make me watch them far more than the musicians who for the most part were all playing several instruments.
Caravan from Hobosapiens was transformed into a striking song that now felt like it was about a caravan crawling across the desert trying not to be spotted by the drones that wanted to destroy it all the while they were above us green light on next to the big lens were we being filmed. Would it end with a missile strike and should we be cowering? Well, obviously some people were scared as slowly a few folk started leaving unable to take what was happening.
Half Past France sounded like they were playing it in a closet. Cale's vocals filtered and foreboding making this tale of the insanity of a touring rock band seem like something far darker and despairing all the light had been taken out of it. That was just preparing us for the stark beauty of Mothra that was a darkened pit from which the drones danced above us, pinning us down to await our fate as somehow this dark music still kept a funky edge to it. Cale's vocals sounded magisterial, but were the drones really Mothra or the enemies of Mothra? It was hard to tell as a few more people dashed for the doors.
Sandman (Flying Dutchman) seemed to lighten the mood a bit and the drones seemed to be having fun above us swooping all over the place as it seemed almost impossible to sit still to this bewitching sound that was coming at us from all directions.
Gravel Drive is one of the songs I've almost forgotten from Black Acetate but in this form it seemed re-born and reworked and far better than the original version of it. It might have been slowed down and re-worked and makes me want to hear the original again on a much unplayed album.
Letter from Abroad was one of the real highlights of the set with its frantic and scary imploring "Afghanistan What have you done?" it was haunting and the presence of the drones flying over us and they do so often in Afghanistan added to it and transformed a middling song into a vital communication asking for an end to the despair of war and destruction of the last few years. Finally the song has come to life. Santies kept things stark and scary and the electronic drums just drove the whole thing along as if we were searching for one safe haven.
Well that safe haven wasn't to be found in Wasteland, which felt richer and more complete in this arrangement than on Black Acetate. There was also something rather funky about it and the way the light beams were working against the drones added another texture.
They then closed with the most surprising song of the set: Sister Ray. This being the first time in 30 years of seeing members of the Velvet Underground perform live that I've heard it played by any of them! I was in heaven and this was a dark industrial noise version that was somewhere between Dr Mix and the remix and Joy Division's version. It would have been perfect on the dancefloor at Club Antichrist or down the Batcave; dark, menacing and disturbing as John picked his viola back up and added another textural drone to it. What the actual drones were doing was finally irrelevant as this song alone was worth being at the Barbican for. It's a pity about a third of the audience had already left and missed it- the idiots.
They got a decent but not overwhelming amount of applause and came back for an encore of Strange Times In Casablanca; another unexpected song choice and it had more claustrophobia than the original and also the big drone that had a light on it and some more odd things at one point dropped a bag of glitter over the stalls. Almost like we were being carpet bombed. It was a memorable end to a very different Cale show.
John led the band and Liam Young and his drone operators out for a bow and they raised the orchestra pit floor up to reveal all the drones so they too could get some applause. This show mainly worked for me and most of the people I talked to afterwards but I do know some people hated it. Ultimately, it's good that John still has that effect on audiences. Oh and I don't see Drones becoming a regular part of concerts anytime soon either.