18 Jan 2017

Nick Cave: mortality, love and faith

From Summer Days with Jesse Mulligan, 9:25 am on 18 January 2017

Rock music's 'Prince of Darkness' Nick Cave performed with his long-serving band The Bad Seeds at Wellington's TSB Arena last night. RNZ Music's Kirsten Johnstone reports back.

Nick Cave live 2017

Nick Cave live 2017 Photo: Nikolitsa Boutieros

Nick Cave didn’t dwell for long in the sombre, hushed tone of his latest album Skeleton Tree for last night’s performance. Instead he interspersed  those songs with ones from throughout his career, proving that he is a master songwriter and riveting performer, with a knack for turning mundane details into big questions about life and death, love and God.

This was only the third show of his Skeleton Tree tour, and the first live performances since the tragic death in 2015 of his 15 year old son Arthur. Though he had already written some of the songs that would become Skeleton Tree, Cave was, by his own admission ‘...a mess, big time’ when he went into the studio two months later, and the album is a harrowing listen. To take these songs on the road and perform them every night must be draining for him. His frustration and curses at the sound engineer when things get off to a bad start are understandable. 

He and the Bad Seeds begin the show with a trio of songs from the album -  ‘Anthrocene’, ‘Jesus Alone’ and ‘Magneto’. Cave is in good voice, sometimes whispering, at others taking a soul singer’s falsetto. The band is framed in blue lights for these first songs, a stark contrast to the blood red of their next song, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. The mood changes completely with this nine minute epic from Cave’s 2013 album Push The Sky Away. He assumes his evangelical preacher character, swaggering and gesticulating wildly, stalking the front rows, holding hands and eye contact with individuals. Where in the past this has come across as flirtatious, this time it felt like he was drawing strength from the audience. It seemed a heartfelt and desperate gesture from both parties.

They played brutal renditions of mid-80s songs ‘Her to Eternity’ and 'Tupelo', showcasing the range The Bad Seeds have. While the seven piece have never been the tightest or most precise backing band, they’re one of the most sensitive and musical going; from an intimate skittering of notes to a wall of sound assault in seconds. Warren Ellis, Cave’s main co- writer, works especially hard, with astounding solos on fiddle and guitar.

Songs from Push The Sky Away such as ‘Jubilee Street’ are highlights; they have bedded in, but are still new enough for Cave and the band to enjoy. When they play older ‘hits’ such as ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Into My Arms’ Cave appeals to the audience to help him out  - “like, a lot.”

They show up his sloppy diction when they pick up the refrain of the latter song, and later he stumbles on the first lyrics of ‘Mercy Seat’. “I’ve only sung this one five million times” he says, but doesn’t miss more than a beat.

There’s another couple of Skeleton Tree songs: gorgeous versions of ‘Girl In Amber’ and ‘I Need You’, followed by murderous signature song ‘Red Right Hand’, overly familiar now to anyone who has watched hit Netflix series Peaky Blinders. He winds down with ‘Distant Sky’, which features a huge projection of guest vocalist, Danish soprano Else Torp, and the title track from Skeleton Tree. It’s not the note the audience expects to leave on, and as usual Cave delivers with a five song encore that includes a particularly gangster version of  ‘Stagger Lee.’

While the Skeleton Tree songs deal with loss and mortality, love and God, these are topics that he’s been writing about his whole career, and he’s built a set that, for the most part, fits the theme.

If it’s an intense and draining experience for Cave, it is for the audience as well. It is different to see him in an arena sized venue rather than the smaller halls I’ve seen him in the past, but the concert lost nothing in its impact and intimacy.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play Vector Arena in Auckland tonight at 8pm.

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