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CONWAY — Staples Auditorium at Hendrix College was nearly filled to its 900-seat capacity moments after the doors opened at 7 p.m. Friday night. Erratic chatter filled the room as college students and longtime fans of John Cale anxiously awaited the appearance of the avante garde rocker. Powerful and calculated, Cale delivered a solid performance backed by three musicians — drummer Michael Jerone, Joe Karnes on bass and keyboards, and Dustin Boyer on guitars — whom he met in Los Angeles while recording “Sold-Motel,” a song from his latest album, “blackAcetate.”
Cale drew on songs from the past as well as material from the latest album. The performance was a righteous reflection of his fusion of dissimilar styles. Engaging the audience throughout, Cale switched back and forth from soft and romantic moods to hurried and crazed sensibilities. His backing musicians were fully committed to Cale’s work, each showing their devotion and enjoyment in their own way. Emotive and fluid, they provided an unusual but well-suited frame for the centered and stoic Cale.
Cale opened the show with “Venus in Furs” — the only Velvet Underground song he included in his setlist — and the audience could hardly contain itself. It was pretty much impossible to sit still while feeling the pulse of Cale’s enigmatic beats, as we watched the act of musical genius unfold.
Before Cale moved on to play “Woman” from his new album, he paused, staring intensely, and began biting at his fingers. Perhaps he did not expect to be so well received by a diverse cluster of Southerners in the Bible belt.
His rabid cover of “Pablo Picasso” by Jonathon Richman was Cale’s most enthralling song. Cale introduced the piece by stating, “Here comes another painter” (referring to “Magritte,” which he had earlier played). All eyes were on Cale and his drummer as some of the most fierce and mind-blowing musical exchanges took place.
Near the finish, Cale was given a series of standing ovations. Of course, Cale could not deny the chanting requests for an encore. He ended with a song written about his daughter titled “Gravel Drive.” Then, after thanking Arkansas, he strolled off the stage.
Having the opportunity to spend an evening with a legendary artistic figure was not the only reason why this concert was important. The level of the audience’s enthusiasm was a magnificent representation of Arkansans’ interest in intellectually and artistically progressive music. There is a conspicuous group in this region that wants and needs more of this type of entertainment. Thanks to Danny Grace and Hendrix’s Special Programs for putting on the free show.