I’ve seen Nick Cave perform live about five times now and he, and his band the Bad Seeds, just seem to get better and better. I will go as far as to say that he is the most exciting rock artist that you will see on the live circuit. After touring his 2012 album, ‘Push the Sky Away’, with the full complement of Bad Seeds members, the current tour features a four-man stripped-down version of the band, with the emphasis on Cave as a solo performer. The setting for tonight’s gig is Nottingham’s rather splendid Royal Concert Hall.
Cave has been enjoying a roller coaster of critical and popular success over the past few years, what with a string of acclaimed albums and film soundtracks, a rather surreal biographic film, featuring Kylie and Ray Winstone (’20,000 Days on Earth’) and now a tour diary, ‘The Sickbag Song’, written on sick bags. Tonight, as he either plays and directs the band from behind his grand piano or menacingly stalks the stage in his trademark tight dark suit, he displays both supreme confidence and good humour.
The show seems to have some sort of loose setlist. But essentially the band have rehearsed a long list of Cave’s songs, so Old Nick can pluck a song out of the bag to play on a whim. This enables the Bad Seeds to cover a fair few of the shouted suggestions from the audience — provided the requested songs are on Cave’s list! Or so it seems. ‘Tupelo’, his homage to Elvis Presley, is the first request, but Cave seems doubtful about playing it, as it’s the first time they’ve tackled this one on the tour. But ‘Tupelo’ turns out a cracking performance, from the crashing thunderous opening, through to Cave addressing the spooky words “go to sleep my little children, the sandman’s on his way” to two young ladies in the front row, who stand and gaze in awe as he bends forward from the stage and addresses them. Gripping stuff and a show highlight. In the hands of a less skilled performer, this could seem clichÃ©d and laughable, but Cave is the master and totally convincing.
There are many audience moments to treasure in this show. Cave is like a skilful cricketer batting the verbal balls hurled at him by the crowd. “You sexy bastard” shouts someone as Nick struts to ‘West Country Girl’. “Thank you!” acknowledges Cave knowingly, to audience laughter. Someone in the balcony starts singing “I’m the Grinderman” to the amusement of both Cave and the audience. Nick jokes that he is thinking of putting out a two album deluxe ‘best of’ Grinderman set, knowing that his Grinderman band only produced two albums in the first place. The audience are well-clued up to Cave’s output and get the joke.
The gig provides the doting, but nevertheless spirited and mouthy audience, with a pretty good selection of songs from Nick’s sizeable back catalogue. As tonight is essentially a Nick Cave showcase, many songs feature him solo at the piano (or with minimal band backing), so we inevitably get a good helping from ‘The Boatman’s Call’ album (including ‘Into My Arms’, ‘Brompton Oratory’ and ‘Black Hair’), plus staples like ‘The Weeping Song’ and ‘The Ship Song’. There are also several offerings from his recent ‘Push the Sky Away’ album, including ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, ‘Mermaids’ and, inevitably, his classic ‘Jubilee Street’, which is now firmly established as one of his career best songs. As he completes each song, he playfully tosses the sheet of lyrics over the piano onto the floor.
This tour seems to be very much about Cave reinterpreting his back catalogue and emphasising his song-craft. Additionally he demonstrates what a skilled and controlled singer he has become — he turns into a real crooner at times. Between the sensitive balladry, there’s fortunately a few thumping Bad Seeds stonkers. Besides ‘Tupelo’ we get ‘Red Right Hand’ and ‘Jack the Ripper’. No ‘Stagger Lee’, however, despite several audience shouts. It’s not on Cave’s extended song list, it seems, and they can’t do it.
The Bad Seeds are brilliant as ever, even in a more restricted role serving a Cave solo show. Since the departure of long-serving Bad Seeds stalwarts Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, Warren Ellis has become Cave’s right hand man, in both song arrangement and performance. Tonight the hirsute Ellis is less of a Wildman than usual, remaining seated for much of the time, and playing a whole range of instruments from guitar to violin, flute and accordion. A subtle highlight is his lovely violin playing on ‘No More Shall We Part’. However, in one mad animated moment during ‘From Her to Eternity’ he does his usual hurling of a violin bow and hits drummer Thomas Wydler on the head. Wydler flinches and grins, but doesn’t miss a beat.
Highlights of tonight? Many! Often with live gigs it’s interesting versions, sometimes of less played songs that catch the attention. So there’s a splendid rendition of ‘Let Love In’, more stripped back and less swooning than the original recorded version. Then there’s what Nick, tongue-in-cheek, describes as an “early-mid-period Cave classic”, ‘Up Jumped the Devil’, featuring Nick hammering away on what looks like a child’s xylophone. ‘The Mercy Seat’ really is a Cave classic and tonight is a beautiful piano led rendition, with Nick emphasising the chilling lyrics about a guy on death row. Even ‘Jubilee Street’ gets a different treatment, with sparser more staccato instrumentation, dispensing with the original’s familiar swirling violin / organ play out.
Encores can be rather routine and obligatory, but the audience heartily demands one tonight, with passionate hand-clapping and foot stomping. Cave and the band seem genuinely touched by the response and oblige with several encore songs. “Are you alright to hang around a little longer?” he knowingly asks us. We get a generous encore set comprising ‘We Know Who U R’, ‘God is in the House’ (to which we are invited to sing along), ‘Breathless’, ‘Stranger than Kindness’, ‘Jack the Ripper’ (“make it evil Tommy”, he instructs his drummer, who counts-in the song), ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’ and ‘Push the Sky Away’. Someone shouts out that they got married to ‘Breathless’. “What someone singing my version?” he queries with mock indignity. He dedicates the song to the couple in question.
This has been a pretty stunning evening. At 57, while many celebrated musicians are resting on their laurels, Cave is an artist in his prime, at the top of the tree.
One beef, however. Cave is a dynamic and unique performer. His stage performance is dramatic and should be recorded by photographers for everyone to enjoy, both those who were at the gig and those who weren’t fortunate enough to be there. And pictures also serve as an important record for posterity. So it’s a real shame that Nick puts real restrictions on attending photographers. As a result all I can show you are distant shots of Nick behind the piano, which doesn’t represent what we witnessed at the gig. Don’t you know that a good picture is worth a thousand words, Nick?
Review and photographs by John Bentley