John Cale, Manchester University

Manchester University

The last time John Cale played in Manchester he appeared at a classical music venue accompanied by a cellist. Two years on, the Velvet Underground legend finds himself crammed into one of the University's most sweaty, rock'n'roll rooms. The atmosphere recalls the days when he produced punk bands like Sham 69 and Menace. Shaven-headed and wearing a white shirt slashed open at the torso. He looks a like a cross between Leonardo and some sort of punk inmate.

Cale is in Britain promoting his new mini-album, 5 Tracks, which contains some of the most challenging music he has ever made. There's no cellist, but a clutter of samplers, keyboards and a computer, and musicians who wear blank expressions and lopsided hats. What they play is a sort of compelling avant-garde cyber-punk.

Cale is confident enough to structure the set around his new work. Waiting For Blonde concerns the spirit of New Yorkers following September 11. A sense that global panic has at least partly fuelled Cale's new urgency continues into the stunning Verses. The music shifts between heavenly choirs and angry mobs, Cale's rich Welsh vocal urging, "A century is unfolding; you're the next in line," suggesting both untapped promise and unidentifiable threat.

Over the years, Cale's music has shifted like sand through rock and avant-garde, but his live shows have generally been built around similar, even crushingly predictable sets. But now even the perennial Dying on the Vine has been left at home, and there's a surprise rendition of the Velvet's S&M anthem Venus in Furs. Paris 1919 has been reinvented as angular progressive punk. Most curiously, a version of Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso metamorphoses into a crazed narrative, like a 21st-century take on the Gift.

Cale's work with the Velvets is synonymous with the 1960s darker underbelly, and his new music captures the uncertain mood of these times better than anyone else's. He returns alone for the magnificently sardonic and foreboding Wilderness Approaching, a 61-year-old young man buzzing with creative electricity in what should be the autumn of his career.

· At Union Chapel, London N1 (0870-120 1349), on July 14.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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