In the liner notes for the Velvet Underground boxed set Peel Slowly and See, John Cale said of his former Velvets bandmate Nico that “part of her modus operandi was being misunderstood, having this very naïve, beatific view of the universe on one hand, and being tough and dominant on the other. She didn’t put up with shit from anybody.” It’s an apt assessment of the late vocalist, whose Cale-produced solo recordings from the late Sixties and early Seventies were experimental, characterized by her distinct heavily-accented vocals and minimalist music.
This year Nico would have turned 75; she died in 1988 after a bicycle accident in Ibiza. On Wednesday, Cale mounted a celebration of the singer’s music, Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico, which featured performers including Yeasayer, Sharon Van Etten, Kim Gordon, Peaches and the Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart. Cale and his own band, along with a string section, provided most of the accompaniment.
To those familiar with Nico’s work, the show may have been unpredictable. For one thing, the concert did not feature “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror” or “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the three songs Nico sang on 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, the only Velvets studio album that she appeared on. And whereas Nico’s original recordings were mostly spare-sounding, many songs performed at Life Along the Borderline were reworked to include more instrumentation, showing a display of eclectic musical styles.
The tribute kicked off with Cale and Meshell Ndegeocello performing “Frozen Warnings,” remade as a rock number in a stylistic departure from the version on Nico’s 1969 album The Marble Index. Yeasayer did their own interpretation of “Janitor of Lunacy,” which had a Middle Eastern dance-funk vibe to it. Kim Gordon and Peaches added abrasive guitar and electronic sounds, respectively, to their performances.
Other guests channeled Nico’s spirit and presence. Alone behind a piano, Joan As Police Woman sang wonderfully on “My Heart Is Empty” and then performed with Cale’s band on “Ari’s Song.” Sharon Van Etten came perhaps the closest to sounding like Nico on the “The Falconer” and later on “My Only Child,” and Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields lent his deep croon to “No One Is There.” Near the end of the show, Cale sang “Facing the Wind,” another track from The Marble Index he originally produced for Nico. He closed the show with “Sixty/Forty,” joined by the guest performers.
As for Cale, he’ll continue to celebrate the past: on Friday and Saturday at Brooklyn Academy of Music, he will perform his 1973 album, Paris 1919, with the Wordless Music Orchestra.