With a seismic set drawing heavily on previous ‘untoured’ albums, Ghosteen (2019) and Carnage (2021), Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ performance at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre was a triumph of intensity and grace.
Kitted out in trademark sartorial splendour the pair, touring as a de facto duo for the first time, exuded a familiar if eccentric warmth. On stage Ellis, seated with a MicroKorg synth on his lap; provided a bouncing, wild-eyed, shamanic visual counterpoint to Cave’s forceful Southern Gothic preacher-man rangy gaze. A musical partnership that grew through the Bad Seeds and into soundtracks, commissioned works and ‘side’ releases, most recently this year’s Carnage. Under the designation ‘Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ Carnage is a challenging listen with surprising turns of setting (America, UK, the universe), instrument (electronic, gospel, chamber music), and modernity (futurist vs rock classicism) that seduce but rarely ease. The album catches you because of its uncoded raw energy and works through its unbalanced, barely contained structure. Threatening to fall apart by the album’s end, if not before, the panels of this wild musical vehicle are scored, the headlights cracked, the engine’s steaming but by gawd you wanna go again. In 2021, chaos is addictive.
Approaching the album live, one imagines the intimacy of Carnage might be reproduced with a relative agile verve compared to the DeMille scale of Bad Seeds shows and as such the UK Carnage tour presents an rare opportunity to see both artists up close. Backed by multi-instrumentalist Johnny Hostile (percussion, guitar and synth) and a trio of soulful backing gospel vocalists, on stage the songs emphasised their gospel foundations where harmony and synths coaxed a celebratory spiritual fervour from the mature crowd. As on ‘Balcony Man’ where the refrain “This morning is amazing and so are you” shook the pandemic punters by their anxious burning ears.
However, any performance that draws heavily on Ghosteen cannot be a wholly exultant one. Composed through a veil of grief after the loss of Cave’s son, Ghosteen’s material, performed in such a close setting with Ellis’ haunting electronica, was contemplative, reflective and raw. On the eponymous track, Cave’s emotion was writ large as he delivered the lines “Love’s like that, you know, it’s like a tidal flow / And the past with its fierce undertow won’t ever let us go / Won’t ever let you go.”
A principal attraction of the Carnage tour is bearing witness to Cave’s songwriting-as-reportage where he allows us into the last four years of his life. A view that incorporates and reacts to encompassing global conditions through the lens of his personal histories and human events. As a performance, watching Ghosteen’s demonstration of the struggle to process loss interplay with Carnage’s exploration of character and alienation feels prescient, close and sympathetic. He brings us in. And instead of being vacuous ghouls revelling in a performer’s profound sadness for the price of a sticky ticket we resonate and are transported, perhaps transformed.
As a form of ontological explanation, every performance is the transmutation, the Duende, of a personal experience into something universal. Where the specific reveals the vastness of existence and judged on that basis Cave & Ellis’ performance was revelatory. Like Cave’s Red Hand Files, we were allowed a modicum of insight into the artist’s protean mind in a particular mode. Unlike the Old Testament thundering wrath of early Bad Seeds material, the Aylesbury performance saw Cave’s progression towards a meditative, mystical state of grace, perhaps best evinced during the rendition of ‘Albuquerque’, where Cave seated at the piano, his solitary bittersweet verses augmented by choral harmonies from above, let the song sing him.
This should not suggest that Cave’s talismanic vehemence was absent. Cave prowled the edge of the stage, pointing to the almighty and summoning judgement, poised on arched electric toes he clawed the congregation closer, and during the ferocious rendition of ‘Hand of God’, called for repentance. While the command and energy were reminiscent of 90s Bad Seeds, absent was the previous jubilant darkness and sin replaced with the grim coda of testimony. We have lived through a reckoning. It won’t be the last.
‘Balcony Man’ brought the set to what felt like a narrative close. The word said and music released. So the encores that followed truly felt like ‘a little bit more’ (though they occur most nights) and an actual departure from the emotional blueprint of the concert proper. Of note was the rousing ‘The Palaces of Montezum’, which was the closest Aylesbury came to a toe-tapping singalong. However it was the second encore that served as a fitting testament to Cave’s enduring mastery of the song form, the incomparable “Into My Arms”.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis will continue on tour in the UK until the end of October 2021 (click for details)
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis performed at the Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury on Sunday 5th September 2021.
Main image of Nick and Warren by Charlie Gray
William Watt is a writer based in Dublin. He has an MBA from Nottingham Trent University and a master’s degree in film studies from University College Dublin. He has been published in Virtual Futures Near-Futures Fiction, had a play performed in the Dublin Fringe Festival, and is currently working on a speculative fiction screenplay.