Enthralling, magnetic, enraptured, captivated, mesmerised, riveted; just a few of the words that spring to mind when describing Nick Cave’s performance.
Tightened security and flimsy organisation led to a massive queue snaking its way outside Manchester Arena and around Victoria Station, and the start was delayed by a half hour, supposedly to allow everyone to make it inside on time. Ominous and familiar sounding notes could be heard emanating from inside as we traipsed around the outer ring attempting to descend various stairwells to the standing area and being repeatedly redirected in confusing and frustrating chaos.
We finally descended the correct steps just as Nick Cave came onstage to the last lingering and foreboding notes of “Three Seasons in Wyoming” (played on tape) as they drifted away and seamlessly melded into the opening song.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ new song from their Windrunner score shares the style and theme of The Bad Seeds’ latest effort, the wonderful, dark and haunting Skeleton Tree which featured at the top of many a best-of list with rave reviews and critical commendation. The setlist obviously drew heavily upon this last album, playing all but the shortest of its 8 songs, with a smattering of 2013’s Push the Sky Away interjected with various classic cuts from albums past.
They kicked things off with an opening triple salvo from Skeleton Tree starting with the menacing rumble of “Anthrocene” skittling and thrumming around the expectant and bated crowd, punctuated and offset by the oft-recurring choir-like sigh atop the four soft piano notes. An interesting choice for an opener but it somewhat set the tone for what I now know a Nick Cave concert to be like: a reverent appreciation of one of music’s greatest performers. There’s a certain cult status that comes with listening to Nick Cave and it borders on near-religious and fervent adulation: a quiet and powerful awed respect that permeates the air. Clad in classy black suit and white shirt, dark long hair slicked back in that quintessential Nick Cave look, he opened up standing at the mic gesturing and giving life to his enigmatic and vivid poetry. “Anthrocene” quickly morphed into the eerie “Jesus Alone” with its disturbing persistent wail leading us deeper into our hushed awe as Nick took our minds away with the song’s single-line chorus:
With my voice,
I am calling you
He then left his standing spot at the centre mic stand and eased into his typical stalking and pacing of the stage, arms gently flailing as the song grew and morphed into a strong, slow and controlled cauldron of noise, with the drums hitting notably hard and jarringly in a particularly gratifying and fitting manner. The gentle piano of “Magneto” brought that soon-to-be familiar stillness, but if the crowd were so zealously quiet, Nick was all but so, growing into his groove as he stared the front row down, miming out his lyrics and drawing laughs for lines such as It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus which he delivered with usual aplomb, staring down and teasing the audience as he whispered it hoarsely. He swayed with the yearning lines of the chorus, seeming to urge us to sing it one more time with feeling, and returned to vintage and casual Nick Cave with lines like Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming before dancing to the dark ballad and let me tell you: no one dances like Nick Cave dances, exuding a mystical silky sexiness long lost in today’s frontmen and recalling the sex appeal of frontmen of old like Jim Morrison or Robert Plant. I wonder where Thom Yorke got his moves from…
And then it all changed with the “Higgs Boson Blues”.
A short perfunctory hello Manchester brought with it the first notes and subsequent cheers, and then came the madness. Nick Cave is an absolute mad magician of a conductor, a hypnotic and prophetic presence onstage, never still, jittery and restless as he stalks left right and centre, toying and playing and teasing the crowd, grabbing their adoring and outstretched hands, letting them touch him whilst wildly rambling about Robert Johnson and the devil in increasing hysteria, and taunting the front row between his lyrics with cries of “come on” as he urges them onwards with his arms and ramps up the frenzy with the first of his many ecstatic whoops. It’s a powerful enough song on its own but this rendition alone was worth the entry fee, as he tantalisingly upped the ante, raising and raising the whole atmosphere, leaning and jumping into the crowd. He produced one of the most awe inspiring moments in live music that I have ever witnessed when he leaned into and let himself fall over the crowd as he whispered can you feel my heartbeat? and hands stretched and reached towards the organ in question from every which way, before he made a gun with his hand for the coarse and hushed power of the next line:
It goes boom boom boom
And yet despite this alluring and incredible persona, another wonderful aspect of Nick Cave the artist is his ability to disconnect from it as he told the band to dumb it down so he could exchange banter with “a guy with an iPhone” (he says play-mockingly bringing huge cheers from the arena) who wouldn’t stop going on about his purple socks, and whilst acknowledging freedom of speech, he kindly told him to “shut the fuck up” before picking up the broken pieces of their heart with a “I still love you though”. And then the persona was back.
Take this depiction and image of Nick Cave, and apply such moments to nearly every single song of the set, bar the new album or the quieter ones, and you get a general idea of how a Nick Cave concert unfolds. And so it proved, with older bona fide Cave songs in “From Her to Eternity” with its meagre macabre piano line and spooky chorus – rendered more disturbing sung by such a big crowd – during which it was revealed that Warren can equally go just as mad trashing about on his violin or guitar (and smirking approvingly at one point at Nick’s antics), and whilst Nick may act as the audience’s conductor and orchestrator, Warren proved to be the band’s own orchestrator and conductor: the very heartbeat of it. Bleak grey images of windswept tress in a desert landscape then appeared on the screen as the jagged guitar riff of “Tulepo” rang out, and Nick finally sat down to tinkle away at the piano, only to be back on his feet a few seconds later to resume his habitual antics: literally kicking the air with every explosion. I remember feeling a certain sense of fascinated unease in watching and hearing Nick tell us: Oh go to sleep little children, the Sandman’s on his way, all the more since he’d brought this young kid (10-12 years old) onstage, complete with Bad Seeds t-shirt, singing out all the lyrics and not in the slightest bit intimidated as Nick Cave held his hand and pulled him across the stage in fearsome duality, young and old, united in Nick Cave’s persona.
Afterwards, just like the set-changing “Higgs Boson Blues”, a fast and powerful “Jubilee Street” came rushing out of nowhere, taking us by storm, upping the tempo after a mere verse and a half like a bubble growing bigger and bigger threatening to burst into a wonderful explosion of aggressive fast-paced pleasure and gratifyingly complying. Nick struts his stuff more restlessly than ever, sits down at the piano to boogie away before lifting off the chair in record speed to grab the mic again and give voice to the whole jam, I’m transforming I’m vibrating, look at me now!, before chucking the mic away to sit back down at the piano for the few last lines. Unstoppable. And this description in no ways does it justice.
We’re treated to a most delicate and tranquil lull in the setlist with the next four songs, starting off with “The Ship Song” and its peaceful chorus: the perfect platform for one of the set’s highlights and most anticipated moments in “Into My Arms”. Continuing at the piano in his most static stage of the whole night, Nick takes a moment to wipe his face with a towel and humbly acknowledge what a privilege it is for all of us to be gathered there on that night. One of the most magical and wistful moments of the evening ensued and proved that despite all the dark musings and sinister tones and gruesome lyrics and stories, Nick Cave can still write one of the most beautiful ballads on planet earth, taking centre stage on the grand piano and urging the crowd to sing along to the longing chorus.
Into my arms, oh Lord, into my arms
They then returned to the familiar sound and anguish of Skeleton Tree with “Girl in Amber” and its lilting sighing choir coupled with forlorn lyrics above synths that would not be out of place on Lynch’s Twin Peaks. There was time to pull even harder on everyone’s heartstrings with the deeply aching “I Need You”, Nick’s voice an absolute conduit of tender pain above a hypnotic drumbeat and more prolonged sighing moans, as Nick changes lyrical tact from one song to the other: And if you want to leave, don’t breathe to I need you, just breathe, just breathe as if urging himself on to not completely give up on everything. One of the most moving songs of the night, if not his catalogue.
A filthy groove starts echoing around the walls of the arena as “Red Right Hand” gets under way, and Nick is back to his maniac best, swaggering across the front line and flaying his arms all devil-like as he toys with the crowd in the build-up to the eponymous lines, with a whoop and bell crowning it all. A snakingly gnarly guitar solo struts its way around as Nick conducts the crowd in his prophetic manner before rushing to the piano for the inevitable explosion, and back again in time for the bell. Mesmerising. Words cannot describe the powerful performance of every single song.
A budding “The Mercy Seat” keeps the momentum going with its hasty and imminent vibes building and building into hectic fury with its repeating final lines transmitting a sense of impending doom and nervous anticipation made all the more powerful by the following choice of song in “Distant Sky”. It was not a song I was expecting and I found it slightly perturbing having the whole screen dominated by a video of Else Torp singing her parts of the song, wondering why they didn’t bring a replacement singer along for the tour. But it did grow on me in its pure ethereal quality and sincere tones, instilling a chilling and respectable silence. Nick then chose the perfect set closer in Skeleton Tree’s eponymous and adequate closing song that was, to put it simply, a most wonderful break to proceedings and a single relaxing moment of admirative peace and quiet.
The band then went offstage before the encore and I’d like to take this moment to commend The Bad Seeds on their incredible backing of their charismatic frontman, enabling his every mad whim and frantic performance. Special mention to longtime collaborator Warren Ellis who truly acted as a perfect conductor, organising the ups and downs and breaks and stops whilst still having the time to trash around on various instruments and become maniacal himself.
There could hardly have been a more perfect encore (except maybe with an extra “O Children” thrown in there…or “Lyre of Orpheus” or…) and they kicked it off with a dark and brooding “The Weeping Song” that extended and extended as Nick ventured off into the crowd, climbing up on chairs and through people, getting selfied by enthusiastic fans, being helped up and down the rows, singing and teasing them, swatting away their phones and encouraging “proper” clap-alongs – berating the crowd for not clapping the right way – thanking a member of the audience for their thoughtfulness in (appropriately) handing him a tissue, and then finally succumbing and handing that “guy with an iPhone” only one of his purple socks.
Then came undoubtedly, and I know I’ve used this word before but bear with me and trust in the mad performance that is Nick Cave, the ultimate highlight of this crazy evening. The bass started it off with its brooding groove, before single dark piano notes rang out and lingered into the abyss as the drums sounded off hard and menacingly over our heads. Nick danced. Nick knelt. Lifted a woman onstage. She danced. Like a mortal facing a higher being. Then Nick knelt. Brought up the awesome kid from earlier. Gestured towards the side of the stage at some security guys or something. And then Nick started singing with the wonder-kid magnificently mouthing off the opening lines. By then a streak of people were continuously coming onstage, all grooving and dancing and doing their best Nick Cave impressions as he narrated the dark and gruesome story of “Stagger Lee”, pointing and flaying and raging his way around, enticing and teasing the crowd, onstage and off, pointing, screaming, shushing the crowd as those onstage reverently took up the background and left him the requisite amount of space he needed to perform his magic. And then the massive party began and exploded when the cacophony of noise that signalled the end of the song erupted from the Bad Seeds, and what a sight it was to see up to 30 people rocking it out onstage to the monster jam and figure that is Stagger Lee. But where the normal song should have ended, Nick brought it back down for a last bonus verse featuring none other than the devil himself facing up to Stagger Lee. I need not reveal the outcome.
Here come the devil, said “I’ve come to take you down, Mr. Stagger Lee”
Final screeches and wails of noises like banshees burning rung out into the night for what could have been the perfect ending party but they once more chose an absolute pearl of a closer in Push the Sky Away’s eponymous final song, only after making all those onstage sit down obediently behind him though, except the kid, as the prophetic choir lines of the title were echoed back by a mesmerised and awe-struck 20 000 obedient fans. Nick Cave had already won us over but he’d now turned us upside down, inside out, shaken us head to toe and bewildered us into awestruck admiration, even more so when he took the time to give a sincere and heartfelt repeated thanks, coming across as a most humble and thankful person as he shed Nick Cave the persona and once more became Nick Cave the mortal.
(Manchester Arena, 25th of September 2017, Manchester, U.K.)