EIF reviews: John Cale | Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela | Alison Goldfrapp
John Cale ****
At 81 years old, John Cale was still one of the more progressive artists on the Festival’s contemporary music bill, though his set did feature some “la la las” and some “yada yada” ramalama-style rock’n’roll callouts. Nearly 60 years ago, his band the Velvet Underground reinvented the genre in New York dives and eventually the world caught up. Cale has long been elder statesman with a distinguished solo career in music-making and production.
Backed by his young(er) band, guitarist Dustin Boyer, bassist Joey Maramba and drummer Alex Thomas - arranged as supportive backline - Cale journeyed around his back catalogue on keyboards and guitar, from the ordered distortion of JUMBO in tha Modernworld from the Noughties back to robust 1970s rocker Paris 1919, stealthy epic Rosegarden Funeral of Sores and the swelling storm of Cable Hogue, returning throughout to his latest material from current album Mercy.
Here he allowed himself to look backwards on the fragile sonorous, Noise of You, the weary plea and glistening keyboards of Mercy and Moonstruck (Nico’s Song), his ode to the Velvet Underground vocalist who was once, briefly, a resident of the town now insisting rapturously on an encore (Heartbreak Hotel).
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela ***Usher Hall
With Venezuela’s flamboyant Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra it’s invariably the encores that count. They were a long time coming in a concert already running well beyond its advertised duration. They climaxed with Bernstein’s Mambo from West Side Story, a characteristically party-popping performance - their natural comfort zone.
I’m not sure Mahler is. The core programme ended with his First Symphony. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel certainly had the measure of it, signalling a well-argued course through its eccentric byways - its protean ambiguity, its galumphing Ländler, the finale’s ecstatic victory dash. Often missing was a the same unshakable self-belief in response.
It began and ended terrifically, the brass-topped triumphalism of the home straight like a final exorcism of the opening’s whispered tremolandi. En route, the road was rockier: unchecked tuning, tutti attacks lacking unanimous bite, string homogeneity wavering, the subtler elements of the finale overlooked. Where some moments delighted, many simply happened.
The Venezuelan music of the opening half inspired indigenous zeal. Paul Desenne’s Guasamacabra - jokey, jaunty, ultimately riotous - drew on cliff-edge cacophony. Gonzalo Grau’s Odisea, a concerto for cuatro (small guitar) with soloist Jorge Glem, was catchy in bits, routine in others. Like Glem’s encore, a patchwork of musical quotes, this was an evening of mixed fortunes.
Alison Goldfrapp ****
Of all the contemporary artists to have appeared at Edinburgh International Festival in 2023, none has carried as much of a sense of exclusivity as Alison Goldfrapp. For two decades, her surname was synonymous with the stylish electro-pop duo she shared with co-composer Will Gregory. Yet this year’s album The Love Invention has seen the partnership temporarily separated, and her first name added to signify she’s onto a new project.
Technically the new record is her debut solo album, and most of this set consisted of its stark synthesiser and keyboard pop, from the icy tribute to assignations in anonymous places that is Hotel (Suite 23) to the cool, clear pop melodies of Love Invention, on through the smooth SloFlo and crunchy rhythm of The Beat Divine. Dressed in an elaborate, eye-catching black dress which appeared to be having occasional malfunctions, Goldfrapp was backed by a keyboard player, a drummer and three backing dancers, whose lithe, minimal moves accompanied the music well.
None of her new songs sound out of place in her set, and Gatto Gelato raised a laugh when she established with an Italian fan in the audience that its title translates as ‘frozen cat’. Songs from her catalogue were essential, however, and Number 1, Ride a White Horse, Rocket and Strict Machine helped reassure fans they were on familiar territory.