By JIM FUSILLI
For his three-night residency last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, John Cale selected the umbrella title "When Past & Future Collide." With one evening devoted to a multiartist tribute to Nico and two others to Mr. Cale's 1973 album, "Paris 1919," the past was well represented. As for the future, Mr. Cale demonstrated how Nico and "Paris 1919" continue to steer the direction of modern music.
In a recent conversation at BAM, Mr. Cale, 70, spoke with compassion and affection for Nico, a vocalist with the Velvet Underground, the band Mr. Cale founded with Lou Reed some four decades ago. A German-born beauty who sang in a deep, breathy voice that seemed at times expressionless and withdrawn, Nico is more highly regarded now, almost 25 years after her death, than she was during her career.
The classically trained Mr. Cale guided Nico through the recording of her first four solo albums. He remains her admirer—"for her determination to alter herself," he said. "She was tired of the Vogue image, of being a blond goddess. She was writing poetry. Everybody was snickering about it, but Nico came from Dylan and Jim Morrison." He added: "She was totally undermined and untethered" by some colleagues and her record label. Decades later, Mr. Cale hears in her music her "stubbornness and self-loathing." Now rock musicians admire her awkward artistry and purity of expression; Mr. Cale had no trouble finding artists willing to pay homage to her work. Regarding her current popularity: "She wouldn't know what to make of it."
With a set almost identical to the one he curated in 2010 at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, Mr. Cale and guests for the most part avoided Nico's familiar 1967 album, "Chelsea Girl," which, Mr. Cale said during the interview, he and Nico hated. Instead, they leaned on the Nico-Cale collaborations "The Marble Index" and "Desertshore." The show's best moments exposed the essence of Nico's compositions: The excellent Joan Wasser, who performs as Joan as Police Woman, tapped the raw anguish in "My Heart Is Empty" and "Ari's Song," while Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev delivered with muted joy the stark poetic imagery of "Evening of Light." Male baritone vocalists best captured Nico's somber delivery as Stephin Merritt performed "No One Is There" and Greg Dulli "Roses in the Snow," the latter supported with invention by bassist Joey Maramba. Sharon Van Etten found the sense of Teutonic melodrama in "Falconer," and Mr. Cale and his band, augmented for some songs by a string quartet, showed repeatedly how he and Nico anticipated the marriage of rock and electronic instrumentation.
As for "Paris 1919": Unexpected 40 years ago when it was released, it is the most accessible of Mr. Cale's 16 solo albums. Though already based in Southern California by then, Mr. Cale was inspired to write by his childhood in Wales, by a yearning to return to Europe, and by a return to music, literature and poetry. His songs made reference to "Macbeth," Dylan Thomas, cities in France and Spain; one song is named "Graham Greene." Working with producer Chris Thomas, who had played with the Beatles on their 1968 "White Album," Mr. Cale delivered an orchestral-rock masterpiece.
On Friday night at BAM, "Paris 1919" lost none of its charm. The music arrived wrapped in wisps of sentimentality, and not merely because of the nostalgia in Mr. Cale's compositions. The audience loved the album: When the Wordless Orchestra began the title track, a sigh of recognition rose and a modest sing-along greeted the "la-la-la" chorus. Mr. Cale, who played keyboards, guitar and electric viola, was in strong voice, his tones true, his phrasing meticulous. His band attacked the material without overly relying on the original recording. Guitarist Dustin Boyer avoided quoting Lowell George's slide parts on the original, and drummer Alex Thomas propelled a winning "The Endless Plain of Fortune," for which the orchestra played with a warm spirit befitting the Cale arrangement, adding bold strokes that jarred the cozy Brian Wilson-like misty serenity in the source material. Cellist Felix Fan cleaved the tranquil "Hanky Panky No How" with a fierce solo.
After a brief intermission, Mr. Cale and the ensemble performed a variety of other songs from his career, including a reading of "Hedda Gabler" that featured dazzling work by Mr. Boyer and fascinating interplay between the orchestra and Mr. Maramba. Several numbers from his 2012 disc, the finely textured "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood," allowed Mr. Cale to demonstrate how its funk rhythms and droning, burbling electronic core suggest another way to present modern rock in a forward-looking yet accessible form. Electric viola tucked under his chin, Mr. Cale and his trio closed with "Venus in Furs," which appears on 1967's "The Velvet Underground & Nico." With that nod to the past reinterpreted in an of-the-moment style, Mr. Cale placed himself at the axis of where the past and the future collide.
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.
A version of this article appeared January 23, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Collision Course.