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Three Songs No Flash

Transforming, Vibrating: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds Reviewed
Patrick Clarke , October 3rd, 2017 07:12

As the cult of Nick Cave gets bigger and bigger, so his material gets sparser and more intimate. Can Skeleton Tree really work in an arena? Lord yes, says Patrick Clarke

All photos by Rowan Allen

The O2 Arena is the venue for the last of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds' five UK dates. Such has the reception been to his sets across the rest of the country by the time it comes round – breathless, clamouring effusions of praise, "the best show I've ever seen him do" etc. – it's easy to forget that when the shows were first announced there were more than a few murmurs of concern.

It seemed bizarre that he would be doing arena gigs. As the rammed venues would indicate, it wasn't a question of demand, and such are Cave's devious powers as a frontman that few would deny he could hold just about any room to ransom, yet it still seemed a strange decision. The Bad Seeds' last album Skeleton Tree was a truly magnificent record, but one that saw Cave drawing immense power from sparseness, closeness and grief.

On paper, it was difficult to see the same atmosphere that made Skeleton Tree so perfect translating to the vast scope of an arena show. Surely, many posited, that material would be better suited to a set of intimate gigs? A chance to emulate, both physically and emotionally, the soul-baring closeness of his new material? On a selfish level, it was as if we might be robbed of the deep, immensely powerful live experience that the LP's dynamic would naturally produce.

We can only wonder what those gigs might have been like, and perhaps they may yet happen, but to take the musical form of Cave's latest work out of the equation for a moment and take a broader look at his trajectory, arena shows seem like the natural step. Last year, the mass of departures by so many of the musical 'greats' left something of a question as to who might fill the gaps they left behind, and the gaps that will continue to appear as time wears on. Nick Cave seems a good fit. The consistent brilliance of his discography – only Nocturama borders on the average – has been noted by many, but as he continues to produce such diverse, forward-thinking records as Skeleton Tree and Push The Sky Away so deep into his career, perhaps it's time for the name Nick Cave to be uttered in the same breath as Messrs Cohen, Bowie et al.

The Bad Seeds have played many fantastic live shows in their time, but what makes this current run most extraordinary of all is the fact that they've struck the perfect note between what seem to be irreconcilable extremes – that as Nick Cave gets bigger, his output gets sparser and more intimate. This is done by two means, firstly by the sheer force of Cave himself, such is his peerless charisma that it's hard to imagine he'll ever be short of magnetic. Secondly, and more importantly, the band don't just play the Skeleton Tree material by the book.

The set's heavy on new material with all but one of Skeleton Tree's tracks performed, opening with the delicate, tender chords of 'Anthrocene', played in near-darkness with Cave himself still offstage. In itself it's a hypnotic opener, but it's not what sets the tone for the live interpretation of the album. That comes with 'Jesus Alone', which follows. Cave appears on stage, striding with all his poise and swagger, to an enormous roar of applause, before the Bad Seeds kick into gear. The faint, eerie buzzing that lies in the background of the track is here ramped up so it becomes a sweeping shadow that spreads to cover the entire 20,000 capacity room as the white lights around them flash in the dark like bolts of lightning over this thundering musical cloud. Cave himself feeds on this pathetic fallacy, his voice cracked but immensely powerful as he repeats the refrain, "With my voice, I am calling you", his hands reaching out into the void.

For the even-bleaker 'Magneto' he begins to step among the crowd in front of him. It's a familiar trick for those who've seen him onstage in the past, but this time it's imbued with a different sort of energy. Taking the hand of one audience member at a time as he sings, staring into their eyes, this doesn't feel like mere showmanship, rather a deep, wholehearted exchange of souls, a primal catharsis and release of sorrow that has the power to transfix all 20,000 of us, not just his chosen muse. He draws on similar powers for 'Higgs Boson Blues', played loud, powerful and sweeping by the Bad Seeds; when it comes to the refrain of "Can you feel my heart beat?", Cave guides the grasping hands of his crowd to his chest, asking them again while looking right into their eyes.

The material from Skeleton Tree and Push The Sky Away is breathtakingly graceful even in this most soulless of rooms, yet with any arena show, some might argue, must come the hits. Cave delivers here too as he slips into a dizzying double-header – the demonic energy of 'From Her To Eternity' followed by the thumping 'Tupelo'. Just as his newer material isn't played by the book, nor are these. The latter in particular, backed by nightmarish scenes of trees on the verge of breaking in hurricane winds, is all the more terrifying as the relentless chug of bassist Martyn P Casey charges the crowd, and as Warren Ellis leaps around the stage with Mephistophelean glee. 'Red Right Hand' and a blistering penultimate blast of 'Stagger Lee' are similarly injected, the band bursting into shattering squalls of unadulterated power, Cave swaggering at their helm. For the encore he invites a swathe of fans onstage with him, conducting them like his own satanic choir.

It's 'Jubilee Street' that is the set's peak among peaks, however. It makes use of both these forms of power - the tender touch and the bombastic blast of force - snaking through beautiful, eerie calm before the tempo suddenly ramps up. "Look at me now!" Cave declares as the tempo ratchets skywards and the volume sears to the boil. "I am transforming, I am vibrating! Look at me now!" This added crescendo when performing the track live is nothing new – it's been a part of the Bad Seeds' live set ever since they started touring Push The Sky Away in early 2013 – yet in the context of this emotional bludgeoning of a set its power is intensified even further.

In many ways this is the quintessential example of just where Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds currently stand in their career. Things have changed irrevocably with Skeleton Tree and the death of Nick Cave's son which inevitably shaped its tone, and their show demonstrates that in its newfound cathartic depth. Yet as well as having changed for the darker, they've changed for the larger. Nick Cave is an artist whose status as one of the most brilliant artists of his generation has been established for years; it was only a matter of time before that was recognised by the masses. Arena shows may not be to everyone's taste, but like it or not they're the level his status dictates.

It's to his immense credit that Cave has risen to the opportunity, rather than let it blunt his edges. He might not be an arena-rock act, but rather than rectify this by changing his sound, he rectifies the arena itself. Even the humour that's often been a part of the Bad Seeds aesthetic is represented. Early on Cave stumbles as he crosses the gap between the stage and the audience. "This is a disaster waiting to happen!" he exclaims with a wry smile, while the audience still finds space to laugh at his more surreal imagery – Hannah Montana on the African Savannah, etc. This is epitomised right at the set's close during 'Push The Sky Away' as the track's titular refrain is chanted with ethereal, hypnotic grace. "Oh fuck!" the singer suddenly exclaims, breaking his spell for just a moment. "It's Bobby Gillespie!" The Primal Scream frontman, who looks, it must be said, slightly bemused, joins the chorus, before the final words are left to Cave, drawing all these energies back – the comedy, the grief, the power and the catharsis – reassembling them into one last chorus that glows with multifaceted brilliance.