❉ “It seems I’ve got to the right vintage to appreciate Nick Cave”, writes Rob Fairclough…
I’ve never really got Nick Cave. Liked Release the Bats by the Birthday Party and, back in the day, used it to annoy the people in the design group where I worked by putting it on every compilation tape I made. Saw Nick with his long-term second band, the Bad Seeds, on the Murder Ballads tour in 1996 – the one where Kylie Minogue came on to duet with him on Where the Wild Roses Grow. Impressive, certainly, but I still didn’t get it: the Seeds’ epic wall of sound passed me by emotionally.
My partner is a massive Cave fan – to the extent that we have a framed poster of him hanging above the loo, which seems somehow appropriate – and convinced me to give the NC&TBS live experience another try at London’s All Points East festival (she’s already been to see him this year with long-time collaborator Warren Ellis and could barely stop raving about it).
So, I gave it a try… and I get it now.
Listening to him on vinyl or CD, you’re only getting half the Nick Cave story. This man and his fellow, completely exemplary musicians belong on stage. They are faultless, from Ellis’s whirling dervish of multi-instrumentalism to the three backing singers, who sound like the preachers of a dark but uplifting gospel. The tumult of sound the whole band creates allows Cave’s mini operas of obsession, torment and redemption the space and range they need to really connect with an audience, particularly on the opener Get Ready for Love and Tupelo. In turn, the Seeds feed on their flock’s passion and enthusiasm.
Nick himself is a consummate showman, the focal point for this sonic maelstrom and orchestrating it all like a hell-fire preacher crossed with Elvis Presley at his most rebellious and subversive. The front rows constantly offer their beseeching hands to him, and Cave is so in control that, more than once, he gets someone to hold his microphone while he conducts the crowd in a singalong. Elsewhere, there’s pure showmanship: a female fan reaching for the Cave crotch is told, ‘What are you doing, woman? That’s sexual harassment in the workplace!’; he makes sure a young girl crushed in the throng at the front of the stage is hauled on to it and, for the rest of the show, has a ringside seat from the side; on one occasion – hilariously – Nick signs an LP cover mid-song. Now that’s class.
The other thing that struck me is that Cave is a man unafraid to write about love. In short, he’s a romantic, which explains why he became friends and collaborator with Shane MacGowan, that other master of soiled, sometimes baroque romanticism. Both men celebrate the pain as well as the pleasure of life, and in some of their songs conclude that the two are one and the same. But both can be tender too, as on tonight’s touching rendition of Into My Arms.
It seems I’ve got to the right vintage to appreciate Nick Cave, because I was really moved by this concert, a tear often in my eye. The same was true of the woman standing behind me, who looked like she was undergoing a transformative religious experience. The most affecting song for me had to be Ghosteen Speaks, the title track of the album NC&TBS made in the aftermath of the death of Nick’s son, Arthur. The simple lyrics “I am beside you, you are beside me” touched something deep inside me.
After The Weeping Song, the band and their charismatic leader were done. Over two hours on stage with the pace never flagging, and still people were screaming for more. The only song I really knew well was Red Right Hand – thanks to a certain series about Birmingham gangsters – but, short of wheeling Peaky Blinders’ Cillian Murphy on stage to introduce it, the song couldn’t have been performed better; like it’s set-list companions, it was far more electric and engaging in the live arena.
Rejoice! The gospel according to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is as fresh and as vital as ever.
❉ Robert Fairclough writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). He has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites, and writes regular blogs about projects he’s involved in for The Restoration Trust. He can be contacted on email@example.com, and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk