Into the Pit: 200: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

I looked at the concept of my musical Bucket List in Tuesday Ten: 178 in 2013, and of those artists, there is pretty much only Radiohead within the list that I have a realistic chance of seeing one day (Slayer’s current line-up, with the death of Jeff Hanneman, is not really one I’m too interested in seeing now), that I’ve not now already seen.

Into the Pit: 200: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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The O2, SE10
30-September 2017

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Tuesday Ten: 192: Reader’s Perfect Albums

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One artist I inexplicably omitted from that post was Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I first came across them back in the early nineties, and by the end of the decade was utterly hooked. They lost me a little after the millenium, before the Grinderman side-project and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! rekindled my interest, and they’ve been on quite the run since.

But remarkably, I’d never managed to see them live over all that time. In addition, they remain one of the few artists that my now-wife and I are absolutely united in our love of the band. We got together over twelve years ago, and our diverse interests extend to music in many ways, with us having very different tastes – and in recent years they have perhaps diverged more than ever. Which made picking our wedding playlist more difficult than you might think (more on that on Tuesday Ten: 252). But more than anything, our inappropriate Wedding Song theme was taken to the ultimate end by the use of Where The Wild Roses Grow as our first dance – a song we’d agreed on the use of years before.

Then, this spring, we finally get tickets to a show, months in advance. Finally!

I’d heard many tales of just how extraordinary Nick Cave and his band are live – both from rapturous reports of this tour (that I’d done my best to avoid the details of before the show), and of many memories shared on tours of yore, but still nothing quite prepared me for it. This was a show that took me from tender delicacy to body-shaking force, from sorrow to joy.

Despite the release of Lovely Creatures earlier in the year – a three decade overview of the best of the band’s work, which needless to say covers an awful lot of ground – this show was very much built around the stark beauty of Skeleton Tree, the album released last year amid much turmoil. Frankly how any album was completed in the aftermath of the death of Cave’s son in 2015 still astounds me, never mind an album as affecting as this.

So I was, I have to say, a little surprised to see almost the entire album played, including what seemed a bold move in opening with three of them back-to-back. Away from the studio, though, these songs have been reworked and tweaked to gain new life, and onstage they were less inward-looking, with a richer, more engaging sound.

While Anthrocene was pretty, it was put in the shade by what followed. The woozy synths of Jesus Alone were beefed up by a gradual surge of intra-band energy, and Cave releasing pent-up emotions that appeared to drain him of energy as we watched, whereas Magneto‘s weighty darkness is rather lightened by the glorious detail of the lyrics, particularly the supermarket queue revenge fantasies…

We returned to the new album later on, but in the meantime it was time to please the crowd. The difference from the newer material to the older was also notable by the removal of the metaphorical and physical barrier between Cave and the crowd. The stage had been built with no photo-pit, allowing Cave to be as close or as far as he liked from the front rows, and for those songs from Skeleton Tree, where Cave seemed to be almost smothered by his own grief, he was some way from them.

But as soon as the swell of Higgs Boson Blues started to wash over us, Cave was leaning into the crowd, ordering surprised fans to “feel my heart beat” at the appropriate points, and the energy from it was then surged forward into a quite astonishing pairing.

The stabbing piano and howled vocals of From Her To Eternity built to a jaw-dropping freak-out (although my wife was probably happy that the drilling, metallic Blixa-led carnage on the album version was omitted), before the gothic, demonic blues and awesome drama of Tupelo (which is based around the idea of Elvis being born in a storm in the city) nearly washed us all away in a hurricane of noise.

These songs were the first pointers toward the primal energy that the band can unleash onstage. The seven-strong band have an amazing pedigree – their connections and previous work takes us right through gothic, post-punk, punk and alternative folk, to note just a few realms – and their musical skill is evident in how tight and versatile a band that they are, and on quite a few occasions, this was shown by their spin on a dime from elegant, restrained passages to raging fury.

The set was mainly a restrained one, too, or so it felt, but with well-placed moments on the flipside that made them just kick even harder. So Tupelo was followed by the modern-day character sketch of Jubilee Street, a song very much set in Brighton, a world away metaphorically and literally from Tupelo, Mississippi, and dealing with downtrodden characters on the fringes of society, with little hope or joy. So it was rather ironic that Cave picked up on a heckle of “Your Wife’s a Fox!” with a grin, a nod of agreement and then quick-as-a-flash dedicated this song about their home town “to my foxy wife”.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds setlist

Jesus Alone
Higgs Boson Blues
From Her to Eternity
Jubilee Street
The Ship Song
Into My Arms
Girl In Amber
I Need You
Red Right Hand
The Mercy Seat
Distant Sky
Skeleton Tree

The Weeping Song
Stagger Lee
Push the Sky Away

The latter half of the set was stuffed with crowd pleasers, and began with some unexpected moments. I certainly didn’t expect the gorgeous strains of The Ship Song (where I might have had something in my eye when the chorus came in, joining in with everyone around me singing every word), and then Into My Arms was another emotional hit (particularly the extraordinary handing over to the entire crowd for the final chorus, note perfect). My wife noted to me that had we made a “normal” choice, this might have been a more appropriate choice for our first dance – a song of pure, unabashed love, it was amazing watching it performed by little more than Cave at a piano.

Red Right Hand was one of the few songs that seemed to be substantially amended live. The tolling bell heralded an appropriately blood-red stage, and a subdued take on the earlier parts of the song, before all kinds of hell was unleashed for the late-song freak out to amazing effect, and that was then topped by a scorching, electrifying The Mercy Seat that built up to breaking point, a song of religious penance turned into an astonishing quasi-religious experience to watch and lose oneself within.

Where do you possibly go after that? Back to grief, life after death, I guess, as the main set received something of a low-key ending, but with a remarkable level of intimacy within such a large venue (and something that was only exacerbated in the encore, of which more in a moment). In a move that could have backfired, Else Torp reprised her glorious vocal on Distant Sky by appearing as a disembodied, pre-recorded black-and-white figure on the backdrop, before the elegaic Skeleton Tree closed things out. A song that on the album, Cave sounded drained of all hope, was transformed here into a surprisingly inclusive hymnal.

The encore, though, was something else. Three songs that took up half-an-hour, and took in endless amounts of crowd participation, cathartic release, and was an astonishing spectacle from start to finish.

The anthemic – but, as my wife observed, perhaps rather more tongue-in-cheek than it first suggests – The Weeping Song was first, and didn’t seem to be anything unusual, until Cave wandered offstage, and down into the crowd, eventually controlling encouraging the characteristic clapping backing from there (and his control over the crowd was something to behold).

It went even further during a riotous, near-fifteen minute take on Stagger Lee (finally, a Murder Ballad! An album otherwise ignored on the night). More crowd interaction down the front – seriously, I’ve never seen a singer so often amid the grasping hands of his adoring fans across a show – was followed by yet another dash into the crowd, but this time there was a reason. Suddenly, there was a rush of people onto the stage, some that Cave had hand-picked, some pulled up from the front, and the band were obscured by the sheer mass of people onstage.

Selection done, Cave reappeared onstage, admired a guy in a pink “I HEART TAKE THAT” t-shirt and white jeans (a whole lot like the video, actually…), and best of all, he pulled forward a shirtless viking-like bloke for the verse when Lee is delivering, er, “justice” to Billy Dilly, who looked more than a little uncomfortable when he realised what was going on. Sure, it was a little chaotic – and quite the comparison to the controlled power of the rest of the set – but it was hugely entertaining, and was very much the right feel for a song that is so, so over the top.

The elegance of the final song, Push The Sky Away, was made all the more striking by the crowd singing along again, and once again almost note perfect. But even this beauty ended up with combined with the surreal, as Cave went walkabout yet again and to his evident suprise, ran into Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) within the seated crowd, and handed him the microphone to sing the refrain…

This was a show that eventually sprawled out to nearly two-and-a-half hours, and time flew past. There was none of the checking the clock that occasionally happens when a set sags a bit, as there wasn’t a moment where it did. It enthralled in many ways, and didn’t disappoint once, and what was also notable was that the band appeared to be loving it as much as we were. Particularly Warren Ellis, who is the clear foil to Cave, and de-facto band leader among the musicians – but equally was either grinning away or wrenching unexpected sounds and poses from a variety of string instruments and synths.

An astounding, fascinating show that was a reminder of why I still love live music. It can extract all kinds of emotions, but most importantly, it is one of joy when things work out so brilliantly. A show that will take quite something to beat in 2017, that’s for sure.

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