Searching For The Cave Man: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Live

Nick Cave gets behind the piano for some slower songs from the Bad Seeds back catalogue at the Brighton Dome, but even that can't stop Luke Turner from marvelling at a band on top of their game. Photos by Neil Thomson

It’s never entirely clear which Nick Cave is going to turn up to a Bad Seeds gig. It’s also never clear entirely exactly who Nick Cave is, so many are the characters and caricatures that he has created and which have attached themselves to his scrawny frame over the years. Is he the naked horndog depicted in scratchy print on the tea towel available on the merchandise stand at the Brighton Dome, the fizzing spunk of Viagra overdose garage project Grinderman inseminating the new Bad Seeds material? Is he the man of letters, beloved of broadsheet and (increasingly) academic papers? (Still) a teenage lust object – remember that Glastonbury footage, where Cave reached to a girl with sex on her face and sang ‘Stagger Lee’ at her? (Normally one only sees attempts at lust in cinema – very few men get to see a look like that in all their lives). Is he, as his detractors have him, a pseud and a fraud, conjuring sixth form clichéd American gothic over a rough rehashing of the canon? Is he a serious songwriter, gliding into middle age? "How old is he?" a bespectacled bloke next to me asks his mate. "In his fifties, early 50s", the reply.

Nick Cave is stood on the front of the stage, in an oil-shiny suit, grey Vs under his eyes, that mane of hair so impossibly and unlikely a black that one suspects that it’s capable of absorbing light. He’s stood on the front of the stage singing ‘Jubilee Street’, his voice agonised and querulous in that uncanny way that puts the burlesque, the anti-macho into fronting this most preposterously ferocious of bands. 

"I’m vibrating… look at me now" – the man who a few hours earlier might have been heading out in jeans to by a pint of milk in this, his home town – "I’m transforming…" he wails, and the Bad Seeds hammer the song harder, way harder, than on record. Ellis flings his guitar down, it falls over, he picks up the fiddle and fiddles the crap out of it. Cave sits at the piano, leaps up, hand on hip, thrusts at the balcony, sits back down at the piano screaming "I’m transforming! I’m vibrating!" and that’s dispensed with, the finest Bad Seeds song on the finest Bad Seeds album in years (possibly their finest ever) gutted and ripped and lying by the side of the road. It’s magnificent stuff.

And by and large, it continues that way. The Bad Seeds, that international bunch of creepy uncles, are pretty much untouchable at the moment. When I saw them play the Hove Leisure Centre and London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre around the release of Push The Sky Away they played a masterful performance of new album, followed by a heated set of the finest sturm-und-drang moments from their back catalogue. What was obvious then was just how well the new material sits alongside the old. Cave and Warren Ellis’ creative partnership, extending from the Bad Seeds through Grinderman to their soundtrack work, has seen the pair master a new kind of sonics of rough and ready strings and garrulous bass rumbles, making Push The Sky Away the most progressive that the Bad Seeds have sounded in years. Indeed, the second track tonight, 2004’s ‘Abbatoir Blues’, feels in comparison to ‘Jubilee Street’ like a mere a rehearsal for how fearsome this band can be now. 

As such, this set is a slightly strange one. Those who appreciate the Bad Seeds as masters of priapic gesticulation rock are left somewhat disappointed by the presence of more than a few numbers where Cave gets down behind the ol’joanna – ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’, ‘Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For’, ‘Sad Waters’, ‘Babe You Turn Me On’. However well crafted these songs are, I for one would much rather have heard the slower tracks off Push The Sky Away. It’s in those songs from Push The Sky Away that Cave and his band managed to distill all the energy, atmosphere and aesthetics of all the Bad Seeds have ever done, from 1983 to now, into something compelling and new.

Particularly conspicuous by their absence are the wistful ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ and stormy rumble of ‘Water’s Edge’ which, given its lyrics about Brighton’s seamy reputation, would have been perfect tonight. Then again, perhaps it’s not exactly that sort of crowd, who are a grumpy bunch with a hint of ‘moved to the seaside in ’99 in search of cheaper property’ who keep shouting for ‘The Ship Song’. ‘The Ship Song’? Intriguingly, I think I detect something of a gender split in the crowd, the women more buoyant over the filthier numbers, the men hankering for the ballads.

Rock & roll tradition (that clichéd and sorry history) generally tells us that it’s in their slower moments that artists offer up their confessional, their most personal revelations. It seems that that’s the way many have chosen to interpret Nick Cave, citing The Boatman’s Call, say, as his Testament On Love And The Bits Of Love Pertaining To God. Cave is, of course, a far more complex character than that, than any of the narrow definitions that he’s been pushed into (and arguably occasionally fallen into of his own accord) over the past three decades. With Push The Sky Away the most contemporary-sounding album they’ve released, at least in my memory, Cave sounds and feels clear-sighted, full-throated, entirely himself.

The older songs are channelled beautifully, of course, with messrs Barry Adamson, Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos, and George Vjestica conjuring the arguably quite camp fury that means ‘Stagger Lee’, ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’, ‘Tupelo’, and ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ sound as potent as ever. ‘The Mercy Seat’ suddenly detonates when Cave shrieks "I’m not afraid to DIE!!!!".

But it is the Push The Sky Away material that really stands out. ‘Mermaids’ imperious, its lyrics packing both pathos and wit; the ambient circular wash of the title track; the grumbling rumble of ‘We Real Cool’. Best of all (aside from the opener) is ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. The song builds into an infernal crescendo – Cave crouched at the front, holding hands with audience members, shrieking about Miley Cyrus (he wrote the lyric pre-twerk) and Hannah Montana, missionaries bearing smallpox and flu, being buried in patent leather shoes – hell, all the world is in here. Nick Cave largely ignores a fresh girl trying to re-enact the Glastonbury incident, focussing instead on shimmying in that shiny suit, singing these new lyrics that are at once fantastical and surrealist, ribald and observational in front of one of the most powerful groups in action today. The older Nick Cave & his Bad Seeds get, the better they become at transcending the supposed young man’s game of rock & roll. He’s glowing. He’s vibrating. Just look at him now.

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