If Cardiff’s Festival of Voice is about challenging the audience and confounding expectation then it got off to the perfect start in the capital last night.
Over ten days, at 30 venues across the city , an eclectic mix of acts and performances will celebrate what we Welsh have been celebrating for millennia, the power of the human voice.
John Cale might not be the first port of call when it comes to soaring arias and haunting harmonies, but, now 74, the Carmarthenshire -born composer probably has as much claim as many to have had a profound influence on music over more than five decades.
The story of how a lad from a small Welsh village ended up in New York in the 1960s forming The Velvet Underground with the late Lou Reed and hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol is now a well told one, but still does not make it any less remarkable.
The Velvet Underground, who Cale, ever the contrarian, quit almost as soon as it had started, are arguably the most important and influential rock band of all time. Legend says few bought their records, but everyone who did then formed their own band.
But disciples of the Velvets would have got little comfort here. A haunting rendition of the classic, Sunday Morning, is the only nod Cale gives to his illustrious beginnings.
Instead it is to the 16 solo albums he has released since that he turns to on a night of bleak, deeply eloquent and profound beauty.
From the start, Cale, who perches behind his keyboard like some solemn bird of prey, sets out his stall with Time Stands Still, a great clanking piece of noise that remains aloof, but a thing of intrigue, rather like the man himself.
An epic rendition of Ship of Fools
The highlight is probably an epic rendition of Ship of Fools that sees Cale joined by a choir that is shunted on and off stage at various intervals and at times feels under-utilised and under-powered. To add to his three -piece band, a string section brings a glacial sheen to proceedings which is appropriate too.
Talking of Sheen’s, Wales’ own Hollywood superstar, Michael Sheen, joined Cale on stage for a somewhat bombastic reading of Dylan Thomas’ Death Shall Have No Dominion. Sheen, Cale, Dylan, mass choirs, by this point the Welshometer was off the scale.
Another highlight is the arrival of singer turned activist, Charlotte Church, who joins Cale for a duet which proves Ms Church’s voice can still hit the right notes and press the right buttons.
Like so many of his type, Cale finds himself today performing to a hardy bunch of acolytes, who naturally lap up his every utterance. Not that he says much, a funeral like silence descends on proceedings between songs, so much so that an audience member is moved to shout, ‘Talk to us John.’ You know what, I almost think he did too.
Cale’s solo work remains enigmatic, textured and deep to the point of opaqueness and if it is hard to engage on an emotional level at times, then that is perhaps the point of it all.
It was even more fitting that the festival really was opened by support act Gwenno. Formerly of cult band The Pipettes, the Cardiff-born singer is forging a formidable reputation as a solo artist and it is clear to see why.
She too indulges in great sonic sound shapes aided by thumping drums and shimmering guitars.
Ms Saunders herself remains at the core, dispensing her icy charms and uttering more between sung chatter, in Welsh and English, than Cale has probably managed in his whole career.
It is mesmeric stuff from Gwenno, at turns off-kilter and jagged, but also too with a beating heart within it that the headline act perhaps lacked.
An invigorating start then to the Festival of Voice with plenty more twists and turns and down right weirdness and joy yet to be unleashed.