In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on a rainy Thursday evening, avant- garde musician John Cale, along with an eclectic mix of musicians (including The Magnetic Fields, Kim Gordon, and Sharon Van Etten, among others) came together in the elegant Howard Gilman Opera House to celebrate legendary singer-songwriter and Warhol protégé Nico.
‘Life Along the Borderline’ was a fitting tribute to Cale’s friend and one- time bandmate, though the evening was unpredictable for the casual Velvets fan and BAM patron. None of Lou Reed’s compositions from the iconic banana album (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) were performed nor much from Nico’s 1967 solo debut, Chelsea Girl. Interestingly enough, Mr. Cale told The Wall Street Journal recently both he and Nico hated that record. Instead focus was shifted to the Nico-Cale collaborations The Marble Index and Desertshore. The exclusion of familiar work allowed Cale and co. to explore an obscure and often challenging back catalog of work. However the artists had varying degrees of success interpreting the songs.
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, known for her unorthodox use of guitar tuning and distortion, seemed to be plagued by technical difficulties while on stage, distracting both performer and audience. The jarring contrast of her blistering feedback ricocheting off the walls of this pristine Beaux Arts space was a fitting irony hopefully not lost on Cale. Flamboyant performance artist Peaches toned down her theatrics to focus on the evening’s two German songs, “Mutterlein” and “Abschied”. There was a glimmer of her signature style to the former as she alternated between singing and programming her own beats. Joan Wasser, who performs under the moniker Joan as Police Woman, tapped into Nico’s melancholy with her beautifully somber piano renditions of “My Heart Is Empty” and “Ari’s Song”. In sharp contrast, Alison Mosshart – one half of The Kills – filled the night’s sex and rock & roll quota. She prowled the stage taking the song “Tananore” to a viscerally charged level whilst she and Cale exchanged muffled moans. Psychedelic pop band Yeasayer subverted the dark “Janitor of Lunacy” into an upbeat jam session fitting of a Brooklyn warehouse dance party.
Cale closed the show with “Sixty/Forty,” joined by the guest performers. While the Kumbayah-style sing-a-long might have been the most mainstream point of the evening, one walked away with a better understanding of the woman better known as Nico. After the tin-foil glamour of the Sixties and sordid tales of drug abuse have been peeled away, what is left is a strong (and often overlooked) body of work from a lonely performer whose life and art– for better or worse – became one.