Tuesday 16 March 2010

Mumford & Sons smash it but John Cale & Heritage Orchestra a missed opportunity

John Cale with the Heritage Orchestra - Paris 1919, Royal Festival Hall ***
Mumford & Sons, Shepherd's Bush Empire *****

"Are you English or Welsh?" a voice leered in my ear.

"I'm sorry?" I stuttered uncomfortably.

"Are you from England or Wales?" said the woman again, with a heavy Cardiff accent. Her teenage son disappeared into his jacket with embarrassment.

The lady clearly felt sorry for me at having to go to a gig on my own without anyone (my mother, for example) for company. She then regaled me with stories of how she had turned down the chance to go for coffee with the mighty Velvet Underground lead man, John Cale, a few years back.

I was taken aback at her opening gambit but Cale himself is Welsh and commands a strong Welsh following. My Welsh work colleague bored me with tales of how a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had driven Cale around to a gig in the valleys several years ago. I managed to give that monologue the slip, fearing more anecdotes were on their way. But I digress.

Unlike 99% of the audience I actually heard about the gig through being a huge fan of the Heritage Orchestra (a few weeks ago I mentioned them in my list of the best musical things of the 2000s). I had only seen them perform live once before - playing Gabriel Prokofiev's Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra and some Plaid tunes - but they have a wonderful LP of their own music and did a gig a few years back with Brazilian legend Eumir Deodato, which was, by all accounts, excellent. When I heard that they were doing a performance with John Cale of his seminal album Paris 1919, my ears pricked up. I'd never heard the LP before, but as soon as I gave it a listen, my mind was made up that this would be an immediate front runner for gig of the year. The album is a nostalgic Beach Boys-esque slab of beautiful pop, and the thought of adding a full orchestra to it brought my anticipation levels somewhere near sky-high.

Perhaps I expected too much. My only criticism of the Heritage Orchestra will always be that they could be more ambitious and never quite fulfill their potential to do something really extraordinary, and sadly this was the case at the Festival Hall. The term "Orchestra" was pushing it a bit, too: the strings consisted of three first violins, three second violins, four violas, three cellos and three basses (Cale is a viola player!); a couple of horns, a trumpet and a trombone. With Cale's four-piece rock band, who were more pronounced than the orchestra, c'etait tout. The Heritages have always lacked ambition in their orchestration and the arrangements of Paris 1919 were, for the most part, dull. Only some imaginative string work and a prominent trombone on "Graham Greene" really got going, although a gorgeously rich version of "Half Past France" got the spine tingles going in the way I'd been hoping when I splashed out £28 for my (upper circle) ticket.

The strength of material like "Child's Christmas in Wales", "Hanky Panky Nohow" and the title track meant that this was still a decent gig, but Cale himself seemed disinterested as they ploughed through the album in track-for-track order and he barely acknowledged the Heritage Orchestra throughout.

In the second half Cale reappeared with just his band and this time they rocked hard. Unfortunately, I was the only person in the audience not to know any of his material, so much of it was lost on me, even "Femme Fatale". The crowd loved every minute, including my gregarious Welsh new-found friend whose son manfully endured her banshee whooping after every tune.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I still maintain that this could have been one of the all time gigs to remember being at. Instead, it felt like a missed opportunity.

We discovered Mumford & Sons at work in the week I started, about five months ago now, and they have become the spiritual office favourites ever since, with the album on rotation about four times a day in the autumn. It was only fitting, then, that three of us (with various girlfriends in tow) should sally forth to see them live at the Empire on Sunday night.

A brief mention of Camille O'Sullivan, who was performing at the St Patrick's Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square beforehand in the sunshine. My recent review waxed lyrical enough so I won't say more except that once again she was superb (not sure about doing U2's "One" though!), doing some of the material she'd done at the Apollo gig (Kirsty MacColl's "In These Shoes" and Nick Cave's "Ship Song") as well as some different songs. She battled bravely to entertain the crowd who mostly consisted of extremely smashed Irish 14-year-olds. When she's next in town, do as I say and get yourself a ticket or I'll give you a smack.

Then it was off to the Empire (a nice venue and surprisingly small). after hearing Thom Stone (shy, dull) and Alberta Cross (loud, rocky, will probably remain virgins their entire life) we got the main course. Mumford & Sons are so energetic that it's easy to forget they have no drummer; instead the rhythm comes from "Country" Winston's banjo and Marcus Mumford's bass drum which he plays in addition to guitar. Bass (mostly acoustic) and keyboard make up the band, with occasional guest spots from a horn section.

The gig was epic. The sound quality, volume levels and balance were wonderful while the band threw themselves into their unique mixture of barbershop chorales, lyrical poetry and tubthumping folk-rock hoe-downs with electric energy. Sigh No More doesn't have a weak track on it and while flagwavers "The Cave" and of course "Little Lion Man" drew the biggest cheers, ballad "Awake My Soul" showcased the band's choral balance perfectly while headbanger "Roll Away Your Stone" must have worn away a lot of shoe leather from all the foot-stamping both on stage and in the crowd. I've not had so much fun at a gig for ages and  they're undoubtedly one of the best bands in the country at the moment, and three new tracks bode well for an upcoming new album. The ovation at the end was uproarious and deservedly so.

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