The rain came down. Amidst some of the nastiest sleet London has experienced this winter Nick Cave and the towering Bad Seeds gave a momentous performance that kept building and culminated in a shower of applause.
Popping into a pub near to the historical Her Majesty’s Theatre (which 6 days a week houses the theatrical juggernaut Phantom of the Opera) a conversation was struck up with some insiders who let on that it was going to be a loud show, but that Nick Cave wanted to create a mellow atmosphere. They joked that the front rows had been lightly sprinkled with plaster from the effects of a roof-rattling soundcheck, setting expectations high for everyone in earshot.
Taking our seats for the preliminary documentary it occurred to us that Nick Cave’s theatrical journey was reaching its circular completion: from making cinematic music, to scoring films, to writing films, to having a screened trailer precede his performance in a proper working theatre. All the while educating an audience; making the marginal accessible, and regularly beautiful.
The latest album Push the Sky Away is being introduced to a live audience ahead of its release (Feb 18th) and the short preview film frames the performance with a series of tasteful insights into the creative processes behind the work of its collaborators. It’s an open meander through what looks like a contemplative record, lots of close ups and short focal lengths, and a sense of a band stripping away the mystique, rolling up the sleeves and getting to grips with a new direction, to paraphrase Cave: ‘a sense of soundscapes without having anything to do with soundscapes’.
As the film finishes there is movement behind thick red theatre curtains, gels glint over cymbals, and the sold-out crowd clamber over seats for sodden cigarettes and long bar queues.
A few short minutes later the lights dim and the audience hubbub builds into a cheer as the curtain parts and we fade in.
The band takes the stage to wild applause. Thomas Wylder is apparently ill with Barry Adamson helping out on percussion and keys. We’re going to hear the album from start to finish as we’re informed that ‘there’s a narrative of sorts’.
On previous concerts with a more polished set you can get the feeling there is less chance and risk in the Bad Seeds performance. However, here you get a sense of a band still tense and excited by the material. They play with a ferocious intensity and despite being unfamiliar with the material, each song ends to rousing cheers, boisterous heckles, and general encouragement from a crowd straining forward in old-fashioned theatre seats.
Nick is warm throughout, he has lyric cards but doesn’t seem to need them, he jumps and cajoles with the energy and drama of his earlier pre-piano self (or latterly Grinderman). He interacts regularly with the kids’ choir at the back of the stage and you can detect that he’s much more aware of them than he is of his usual front row fan. Adults, he’s performed to for years, but performing in front of kids… harsh critics indeed.
The new album is a marked shift in tone and voice from previous work, the southern gothic vibe has been replaced with something contemporaneous. Language and story (always the focus, antagonist and protagonist of Cave’s work) are still the vital organs of his lyrics but this time there are references to the internet, churnalism, distraction media, and the worldwide presence of everyone.
Where early Cave used the language of preachers, barroom raconteurs, bluesmen, etc., here it’s the stripped and pared-down voices of the alienated tweeter and the lonely commenter. The drama and melancholy remains and beneath what these ephemeral voices say the humanity of what they mean and factual social reasons for why they’re saying it shines though. Moreover, Cave references his own previous work with updated nods to thematic constants: water, darkness, light, sex, pride and of course, death.
During the performance Nick chats to the audience, presaging the songs as if trying to win the audience over to the unfamiliar material. It’s endearing and the audience laps it up. It dovetails with a deep sense of occasion; ‘we lucky to be here’ rings out of every pore.
Based around Violinist Warren Ellis’ abstract loops and Korg pads on Push the Sky Away the other instruments find their own place, interchanging lead and rhythm prominences and avoiding regular song structures for something jazzier and freer. Which isn’t to say the music wanders… there is a definite sense of purpose and on tracks like ‘Jubilee Street’ drummer Jim Sclavunos is given room to rock out (to cries of ‘we love you Jim’ from the audience).
It’s a big album, with lots of unexpected corners, rousing instrumentation, and fiery performances that go over big.
But that was only half the story. As we waved goodbye to the kids’ choir the very much adult second set saw a great night become legendary. Redefining the classics, this particular Bad Seeds configuration took the dynamics of Push the Sky Away and applied them to familiar tunes with force. It was as if the absence of Wylder, Bargeld, and Harvey, all of whom cast long shadows within the Cave canon, has allowed another equally powerful form to rise up.
In particular tracks like ‘Red Right Hand’, ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Your Funeral My Trial’ seemed huge and refreshed by the new arrangements
After set closer ‘The Mercy Seat’, several floors of devotees stood giving rapturous ovations, clapping and begging beyond embarrassment for an encore. And what they requested – they received; a wild version of ‘Stagger Lee’ full of nasty humour, pounding drums and a frenzied Cave rampant and alive, balancing on monitors, wildly flailing; defying age and gravity to close the evening with a bang!
We No Who You R
Wide Lovely Eyes
We Real Cool
Finishing Jubilee St
Higgs Boson Blues
Push The Sky Away
From Her To Eternity
Red Right Hand
The Ship Song
Jack The Ripper
Your Funeral My Trial
The Mercy Seat
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Performing Push the Sky Away. Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. Feb 10th 2013
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds touring line up is:
Nick Cave: Vocals, Piano, Guitar
Warren Ellis: Violin, Mandolin & Samples
Martyn Casey: Bass
Conway Savage: Piano, Organ
Jim Sclavunos: Drums, Keys, & Percussion
Barry Adamson: Drums, Keys, & Percussion
Ed Kuepper: Guitar