Christa Päffgen was better known to the world as Nico, the German-born art-rock chanteuse who lent her haunting vocals to the Velvet Underground’s most seminal work and carved out a deeply influential solo career. Though she passed away nearly 25 years ago, her work (especially The Velvet Underground & Nico and her 1967 solo debut Chelsea Girl) still echoes with incredible resonance. Her style inspired multiple generations of Goth acts, quirky-voiced art belters like Bjork, and filmmakers like Wes Anderson (who used two Chelsea Girl recordings during key moments in The Royal Tennenbaums; it could be argued that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in that movie was at least partially inspired by Nico herself).
Friend and frequent collaborator John Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground and producer of several Nico solo albums, recognizes her impact better than anybody. That is why Cale produced last night’s show Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their Next Wave Festival. For a sense of how deeply Nico’s songs have been felt, one need only look at the lineup of guests and collaborators who filled BAM’s Gilman Opera House: Sonic Youth founder Kim Gordon, Sharon Van Etten, Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, the Kills singer Alison Mosshart, Joan as Police Woman, Peaches, and Brooklyn indie groovers Yeasayer.
Nico’s songs offer a lot of unique opportunities: Most of them are made up of very few elements, which allowed many of last night’s interpreters to deconstruct those elements and glue them back together at strange angles. The opening number set the tone for the rest of the evening: With an assist from Meshell Ndegeocello, Cale transformed “Frozen Warnings” from a fluttery dream into a thumping rave-up that lent the song a real sense of danger and mortality.
Those themes ran through many of the performances. The specter of both Nico’s life (too much of which was spent addicted to heroin) and her death (she passed away nearly 25 years ago at age 44) haunted Joan as Police Woman’s spare, powerful take on “My Heart Is Empty,” Sharon Van Etten’s powerful “My Only Child,” and Ndegeocello’s quiet run through “Afraid.”
The set list favored deeper cuts over the more well known material (neither “These Days” nor “The Fairest of the Seasons” made appearances; despite Cale’s presence, there were no nods to Nico-led Velvet Underground tracks like “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”), which yielded some fascinating gems. Peaches was charged with belting out the German language tracks “Mutterlein” and “Abschied,” and both were delivered with considerable energy and grace (especially the former, which saw Peaches add her own beat science accompaniment with the assistance of a sampler). There were real rock star moments, too: Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev turned “Evening of Light” into a glitter-soaked psychedelic starburst, Mosshart brought boots-and-leather swagger to “Tananore” and “Fearfully in Danger,” and Dulli confidently wrestled an elusive groove during “Win a Few.” In perhaps the evening’s greatest moment, Yeasayer rolled out a steamrolling, funked-up take on “Janitor of Lunacy” that found even the 70-year-old Cale dancing behind his mountain of keyboards.
Because of the nature of the show and the open interpretation attitude, not everything worked. Gordon’s noise-drone exploration of “It Was a Pleasure Then” created way too much distance between artist, song, and audience, and Gordon seemed distracted by technical difficulties. The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt brought an especially confusing performance, as he slouched lazily through an otherwise pretty arrangement of “No One Is There.” It was so phoned in that it almost seemed like an ironic comment on something, though his eye-rolling delivery gave no clues as to what his target might have been.
Still, Cale himself walked away the night’s MVP. His weird, wonderful voice is still in tact, and he often got lost in the music as though he was experiencing it for the first time. His able-bodied band deftly combined his rock and roll urges with his penchant for esoteric arrangements and drone-filled interludes. He was especially powerful on the show-closing “Sixty/Forty,” which saw him spitting out the lyrics about “New York Lower East Side fame” with warmth and wonder. When he called many of the performers back onto the stage for an all-hands-on-deck shout-along, it diminished the song a bit, distracting from Cale’s singular energy. But it was an appropriate exit, as the collective gathered to repeat “Will there be another time?” in memory of a strange, wonderful, influential artist whose life was cut short but whose shadow will cast long into the night.
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