Live: Dizzying as a Top on a Chessboard. John Cale, Royal Festival Hall.

I've recently come to disregard London's TFL-demarcated Zone 1 as something of a disproportionately enlarged ashtray come the weekend. More or less annular in its constricted dimensions, nicotine perfumery becomes all-pervasive beneath the gentle smoulder of Thames-side towers. These be its dwindling cinders; ominous, crimson beacons of the self-absorption and über-commercialism upon which the capital thrives. Don't get me wrong – to "quote/ unquote" one of its innumerable musical exports, I Love London. It's just that – and to paraphrase another from its slightly less salubrious suburbs – I'm not exactly living for the weekend any more. That is, unless every weekend were to be imbued with an Ether, and every Saturday soirée were to be presided over by the unexampled John Cale.

Gone is the pink quiff to have dominated recent press shots, as Cale instead saunters onstage in a delightful salmon blazer. Commensurately florid, he's enrobed in the psychedelic instrumentalia of Captain Hook too, as its elaborate synths and squealing guitars spring to life. Then, slowly; subtly, those sui generis vocals emerge from whence once submerged beneath these proggy swabs. "I lost my memory today", he begins in what soon seems the smoothest of velveteen-veiled, amnesiac dreams. Irrevocably memorable as introductory salvos go. "I can't keep living like this any more", continues our weathered raconteur and, at the ripe ol' age of seventy, his words come charged with a poignancy one presumes to have been assumed since first recorded down CBGB's back in '79. That was Sabotage/Live; this is sheer supremacy. He is indeed "the captain of this life"; always has been. And even an esoteric offcut from the Black Edition of the quietly sublime Extra Playful EP of yesteryear, Bluetooth Swings, can't shear kudos from the Carmarthenshire boyo's enduring craft.

Trim bass lines scuttle about cocksure riffage, as Cale stands to embody the effortlessly urbane, even when lost in the ether of do's and dah's. The latter tonight proves a sultry little number; the sort Patrick Bateman may copulate to in electric dreams. Keeping things innately New York is Hey Ray: a eulogy to seminal Neo-Dada collagist Ray Johnson, if its verse may sporadically recall some of Lou Reed's more machinistic, if less metallic moments of the misguided then its chorus comes brimming with timeless mellifluousness. It is of a time to which it never belonged (having only been unleashed late last year) yet again it elucidates the agelessness of Cale's work. And, to revert to the social construct that is age, he himself neither acts nor appears his own as he enamours all over again. He may hobble onstage and swig plentifully from the myriad water bottles that clutter his spotlight-strewn expanse, but he remains vibrant. He vivifies as such. And that despite – lest we forget – being older than Brian Wilson to contextualise a touch.

Although the audience he sets about enthralling is a slightly aberrant one. Having previously witnessed mass surf moves to Fun, Fun, Fun within this very room we are, most discernibly, decidedly still. We're something of a societal cross-section of Warhol-alikes vaingloriously repainting that purportedly halcyon epoch contained almost exclusively within the illustrious four walls of The Factory, and ebullient neo-revivalists attired in acrylic-flecked flea market garb etc. In-betweens are few and far between, and this makes for a faintly unifying experience. The juxtaposition of jarring mechanics and well-oiled '80s swaying on this Hey Ray then – preluded by incoherent garble, as is many a track – connects us with a perfectly discontinuous kinda harmony. Driven by lackadaisical post-punk yells and yodelling, Cale takes us through a chronological, and with it almost dramaturgical, take on '60s political conspiracies. "1964: Castro's up in Harlem/ 1965: They're having a riot" he intones in that still only slightly Welsh brogue of his. He sounds as though he's been suckling on the Castrol, and it's sounding resplendent.

Perfection plays to the sass and pizzazz of Edywn Collins' A Girl Like You whilst Guts, the graphic recount of the quick fire "bugger in the short sleeves" to have "fucked" the rather less decorous, and most likely fictitious wife referenced, is pretty well strait-laced 'n' smutty, Rock 'n' Roll music. It's indicative of the simplicity intrinsic to much of Cale's songsmithery and, despite the avant-garde inflexions of the guitars and rhythms around him, it remains central.

Yet thus far all things Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood have been evaded. Which is odd, given that the latest of loads of solo LPs was released within these past two weeks. Astonishingly, it's only when Cale flicks his song sheet over to the gloriously languid I Wanna Talk 2 U that the night finally slips into a fuller groove: it may come chipped and imperfect, although its chorus is far more exultant than I could've ever expected. It's clean and succinct throwback pop, sounds like a dodgy Roxy fronted by Terry Wogan, and ought be revered as as much of a British institution as either.

Another such great British establishment is then referenced rather more unequivocally, as a spooked Scotland Yard is erected from motorik rhythms and hypnotic guitar FX that swirl like dizzying Third Man vinyl; "dizzy as a top on a chessboard". With just 1.2 miles separating here and there its paranoiac, almost premonitory lyrics of "living as if you've done something wrong" resound with a palpable discomfort. What was that wrong, the more insecure and inebriated among us may start to wonder. Similarly, the way in which the show thumbs forward, and fingers back through time disorientates as may a mild hallucinogenic. And, as with all facial feature, some songs weather better than others: the po-mo jerk to Satellite Walk continues to recall Talking Heads topped with one of Devo's notorious, terraced energy domes at the better end of the spectrum, whilst Praetorian Underground transposes the cruddy storyline of We Will Rock You into the tune of Holding Out For A Hero at the other. It's an admirable spread of scruffy past and spanking present, although at points throughout it can become quite stilted. Cues are missed, choruses are at times off, and that Cale reads many a lyric can begin to disconnect. He's still startlingly with it though, and to entrance for two hours at his age is exemplary in itself.

As is December Rains: inadvertently spruced as the effect of a quite dastardly vocoder washes away in recalcitrant rebellion, it proves enjoyably human amidst the synthesisers of this particular series. Interaction may come at a premium irregardless, and a grossly overwrought Phil Collins-esque breakdown is as utterly ludicrous as those lurid spurts of highlighter pink to have once sullied his ashen shock but if atrocious on LP, then it's something of an engaging tour de force live. The bolshie rawkous of Cry, disjointed as an arthritic digit, preludes the point at which Cale comes out from behind the Kurzweil and comes into his own, donning Strat for a heady strut through Helen of Troy. Where he may previously have been somewhat extraneous to the electric wig outs of his predictably proficient backing trio, he is now ever more integral as he waggles a nimble finger across discoloured fretboard. "Say hey! Baby I fucked your mother", he gleefully chimes ad infinitum with the relish of a child to have incorporated the expletive into a still restricted vocabulary, and imitated for the very first time. For they that lust after a glimpse into bygone times, the refrain may carry more truth than one may fear to dream – some of our mums must, regrettably, be of about the right sort of age. And it's this part of punk, however many decades post-, that'll never die, even after its propagators are long gone. As Cale croons with a Ferry-like suavity one sec and grunts like Lydon the next, this much is apparent.

Intractable gear then again impedes progress, as an obstinate acoustic plays up. "I'll keep going", Cale jovially goes and indeed he has. A pantomimic interlude ensues, during which a guitar strap refuses to fasten. A someone a row in front chokes on a wasabi peanut mid-chortle as we anxiously await, though the rolling Americana acoustics of Things and Whaddya Mean By That then validate the wait, the ante upped even for these more subdued numbers. It's thus when buckled up with a guitar that Cale comes harder, better, faster, stronger, or any which permutation of the preceding adjectival comparatives. The industrial bloopery of Nookie Wood even sounds like stadium rock, were said stadium a cyborg baseball bowl. Bows grind up against bass strings, Cale blows raspberries, and promptly recedes from sight. We whoop rabid; he promptly returns.

"Give us the hits, John!" an impertinent other hollers, but the joy of John Cale is that such constructs have never so much as even featured. Instead, it's quite the antithesis for which Cale comes back to us, as he rollicks through a cover of proto-punk fiends The Modern Lovers' Pablo Picasso – a bratty track originally produced by Cale back in '72. More mantric than in many ways melodic, it's an audacious device that positions Cale at the acme of esteem for they that subsist on the unpredictabilities of life; for they that live unknowing of where they may be in a few hours, let alone epochs time. "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole" and one suspects neither did the only Velvet to have maintained a street cred recognised both under and overground, and as his bedevilled repetitions of "goodnight" and primordial mating call and responses tail off into the eerie silences of the Nookie Wood, God knows where he's off to. But wherever it may be, godspeed you! Welsh maestro.