The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Three Songs No Flash

Pondering Personal Redemption: Nick Cave Live In Nottingham
Daniel Dylan Wray , May 1st, 2015 12:04

"Nick Cave & some of the Bad Seeds." Daniel Dylan Wray reports on an evening of sexual tension, seismic impact and incessant heckling

All photos by Natasha Bright

For this latest tour, on the back of the huge success that was the myth-endowing Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days On Earth, things have been stripped back. Whilst this is billed as a Nick Cave solo tour, it is essentially Nick Cave and some of the Bad Seeds. This evening he is joined by Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, Thomas Wydler and "the new guy" Larry who, for no explained reason, is filling in for an absent (or departed?) Barry Adamson.

Opening with 'Water's Edge', a cut from 2013's Push The Sky Away, an ominous bass line begins to roll as Ellis commences to wind up his viola. Cave is seated at a grand piano. Wydler's drums are scattered and playful, dancing between the skins in tip-tap jazz rhythms. It's a gentle opener that sets a tone and pace that resides over much of the first few songs. Moving through an almost solo 'The Weeping Song' with a jumpy, lopping, piano line, the group arrive at 'Red Right Hand', which is simmered down to a jazz-inflected shuffle. Whilst still brimming with trepidation and expelling a ruminating sense of agitation as it rolls forward, it's not the jolting apoplexy that it is in the hands of a full Bad Seeds performance, and yet whilst it's still explosive in parts, it seems more intent on locking into a groove until its dying moments.

During 'Higgs Boson Blues' Cave is up and down between the piano and taking the microphone as just a singer, prowling the edge of the stage and working his gyratory moves. During this song at recent Bad Seeds shows it has proven an opportune moment for Cave to forge intense one-on-one crowd relations, hanging over the edge of the stage, hands outstretched to a group of groping and clawing fans that return the gesture tenfold. However, the seated theatre audience tonight lacks such intensity and proximity, instead Cave seems a little like he is struggling to forge that connection as he searches up and down the crowd for wanting eyes to lock into his.

Cave searches further for this interaction during 'Tupelo', which starts with the menacing thrust of Casey's glorious bass line. It's so thick and intense it feels as though it is the elemental opposite of the thundering rain sounds Ellis has triggered; the latter falling heavily from the sky whilst Casey's bass feels like it is encroaching us all from somewhere below. It's a forceful and propulsive rendition, and Cave finds two women at the front stood on their feet, reaching out hands and screaming, "listening to the beating of their blood". There's always a current of sexual tension that runs through these moments, but the one thing that stops them from becoming too cloying is the feeling of unease they bring too - you're never quite sure if Cave wants to kiss the person or take a couple of steps back and kick their head clean off their shoulders.

The now expectant standards of 'The Ship Song' and 'Into My Arms' are rolled out pleasingly, and until this point Warren Ellis has remained seated for all of the performance, primarily strumming his mandocaster with relative restraint. However, as a truly electric 'From Her To Eternity' fires up, he begins to wriggle and writhe, his feet twitch and this gives way to spasmodic bursts of movement; he tosses something or other behind him with force and it ricochets off Thomas Wydler's head perfectly and shoots into the blackness of the theatre hall. He never quite makes it all the way to his feet but it's the closest we get to his usual on-stage convulsions tonight. In the meantime Cave is hammering his piano keys like he is punishing them, the off-centre rhythm is as perturbing as it is exhilarating and Wydler's drums are heavy handed and seismic in their shuddering impact.

There is a sizeable chunk of the audience who seem unable to grasp that this reduced set-up isn't going to lend itself to certain songs. The endless screams for the likes of 'Stagger Lee' become as incessant as they do inane. One particular man cannot stop shouting Grinderman requests to which Cave tells him, "You're hanging on by a thread"

"I'm a Grinderrrmaaan" comes the response.

"Oh, fuck you," is Cave's curt, slightly exhausted, retort.

Although Cave himself is stopped in his tracks and chuckles when 'West Country Girl' is interrupted with a male scream of "You sexy bastard!"

There are some nice set-list surprises that the usual Bad Seeds troupe don't usually pull out of the bag, such as an accordion-led 'Black Hair' from The Boatman's Call, and a brooding, grooving, sinister version of 'Up Jumped The Devil'. 'The Mercy Seat' has never not had an outing in all the years I've been going to watch the Bad Seeds, and tonight is no exception, however it takes unexpected form. Cave tackles it entirely solo at the piano (the only song all evening presented in this way) and it's utterly spellbinding, the piano clanks float through the sonorous hall and his voice builds and bubbles. It's a version that unfurls and evolves as it progresses - much like the narrative tale itself - the piano lines becoming more forceful and intense and Cave's vocal delivery bitterer and more vengeful with every line. In this bare-bones rendition it wholly embodies the crux of the song, for those few minutes Cave is not simply sat at a piano stool singing about someone who faces imminent death from the electric chair and the heavy burden of guilt weighing over him as he ponders personal redemption, he is sitting on that electric chair himself, spewing those words and fears as his own – a force takes place that makes the artist and the character indistinguishable. It's a truly spine-tingling moment.  

As 'Jubilee Street' rings out the end of the first set and 'We No Who U R' opens the beginning of the second, it's clear how successful Push The Sky Away has been as an album for the group, songs from it are openly and loudly requested and when they are played they often receive some of the loudest applause. There are also notably members of the audience who are unfamiliar with most material that isn't that album, it's testament to an excellent, forward thinking, album in that thirty years into their career the group are still pulling in new audiences. The album is already two years old but two thirds of it are played tonight and it feels like it's going to be sticking around in the group's cannon for some years to come.

Few artists have managed to extract such a personal and instantly recognisable sound from such a ubiquitous instrument as Warren Ellis on his viola but the second he starts making that thing cry you know it's him. 'God Is In The House' is the first and only time we get some proper viola and bow action from him tonight though and it's all the more precious for it as his part softly glides through the atmosphere, leaving a palpable silence for it to cut through and roam.

"Play it real fucking evil, Tommy" Cave instructs Wydler before they rupture into a ferocious, speaker-shattering version of 'Jack The Ripper. Cave's vocal delivery is filled with bite and a slight acidic gargle as he spits the words like demons out of his poisoned mouth and the band do their hell-bent best to create some kind of sonic encapsulation of end times. The sing-a-long essence of 'The Lyre Of Orpheus' acts as the soothing lullaby to the preceding nightmare before. Cave tackles his Grinderman heckler once more - but instead this time in good humour - as he has the spotlight shone directly on him as Cave sings a cappella the opening lines to 'Grinderman'.

They finish with the eerie, ambient drone of 'Push The Sky Away' and as that moody hum finally gives way to applause it feels like perhaps it has never been as unclear or unpredictable as to where the Bad Seeds will go next. Thirty years into their career and they've reached a stage where all bets are off and of all the many wonderful moments in their career - many of which are demonstrated through tonight's varied and engrossing performance - that's a gargantuan achievement and, most importantly, one that carries them into the future when so many artists considered their peers are locked looking firmly over their shoulder.