Avenues away from BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, ticket holders to Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico were already asking, “So, who’s going to sing ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’?” These spectators would be in for a surprise that evening; although it wasn’t clearly advertised as such, the John Cale-curated tribute to the Velvet Underground collaborator and highly influential solo artist would contain no music from the band Cale and Nico did time in. Despite such upper echelon indie names as Peaches, Yeasayer, and Sharon Van Etten, the night was about one name and the legacy behind it. So much was apparent in the event’s egolessness and the credibility imbued in most of the performers through Nico’s songs.
Being an event conceived by Cale in 2008 (to commemorate what would have been Nico’s 70th birthday), the man dominated the show. The sole scream he let out during show opener “Frozen Warning” — from the most represented album of the night, Marble Index — would have been show-stopping if it had come later. Despite being seated behind a keyboard for most of his appearances, the pink-haired Cale was still charismatic enough to hold the sold-out crowd fairly rapt. I was so concentrated on watching Cale during “Frozen Warning” that I did not even notice the entrance of Meshell Ndegeocello, who also put in excellent work during each of her three appearances. Her version of “Afraid”, from 1970’s Desertshore, was particularly stirring.
On average, the less showy a performer was in delivering her or his rendition of one of Nico’s songs, the more effective that interpretation was. A perfect case in point would be Stephin Merritt’s solitary take on The Marble Index’s “No One is There”. With just a music stand, a minimal string arrangement, and his own schlubby self, the Magnetic Fields frontman singlehandedly surpassed all that came before and all that would come after him with his dramatic delivery. Although it was disappointing that Merritt only stuck around for one song while nearly everyone else on the bill got at least two, having only a cameo worked in intensifying the beauty of his performance. Similarly, Sharon Van Etten’s renditions of “My Only Child” and “The Falconer” rode on the power of her singing voice. The latter became something of a duet between Etten and Cale, their voices complimenting one another’s beautifully.
The starkness of such performers both illuminated the ongoing importance of Nico’s music while also marking the reasons why artists such as Van Etten are so critically infallible; in most cases, the songs were firmly rooted in Nico while simultaneously allowing the artist’s own sound to shine through. A huge exception to this statement would be Kim Gordon and Bill Nace’s perplexing noise interpretation of “It Was a Pleasure Then” from Chelsea Girl, Nico’s solo debut. With beyond murky vocal effects and broken-sounding guitars, the performance felt poorly translated and self-indulgent. Likewise, Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart’s amped up versions of “Tananore” and “Fearfully in Danger” smothered Nico’s moody and mysterious songs and became little more than a vehicle for Mosshart’s “rawk” showboating. Not that the audience seemed to mind; in a graphic act of populism, Mosshart received a mini-standing ovation after her first appearance. Yeasayer, meanwhile, did the unthinkable and made “Janitor of Lunacy” into a throw-down; they at least earn a few honors points for inciting Cale to dance.
Elsewhere on the roster, Joan as Policewoman sang and played the piano beautifully on “My Heart is Empty”, and put in a decent effort on “Ari’s Song”. Peaches even managed to appear modest, with an electronica-tinged take on Desertshore’s German-language tracks, “Mutterlein” and “Abschied”. The show concluded with a singalong of Chelsea Girl tune “Sixty/Forty”, during which the night’s performers gathered on stage and sheepishly sang along with Cale. Although tributes like this often end in such a way, the way in which Cale motioned as if to say, “come awn” and the way each entertainer idled out gave something customary a more humble vibe. In this way, the night was more refreshing than other tributes of its ilk. Unfortunately, it could not escaped the mixed bag of performances that also accompany anything that involves various artists. Luckily, Cale being in charge meant the bag was less mixed than it could have been.