Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- David Pollock
- 28 September 2017
A revelatory human experience
It takes longer than usual, after the noise has died down and the train or bus has been taken home amid red-faced crowds gasping the words 'genius' or 'life-changing', to come to terms with what we witnessed from Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds at this most uncharacteristic arena show. That's one reason it wasn't supposed to work; an 'arena show', a potential cash-grab in the land of the giant foam hands and glowsticks around the neck, where this gorgeous-sounding band would surely be nullified by a space built for sonic volume, not subtlety.
The other reason it shouldn't have worked is, well, the one we don't want to dwell on too much. Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur died accidentally during the making of last year's 16th studio album, Skeleton Tree, and the rewritten record and its accompanying film have already reflected upon this loss with controlled elegance and seismic emotional impact. It feels not unfair to say it's surely one of the definitive works about death and the loss of a loved one in any medium. Ever? Yeah, why not.
So, a public therapy session in front of nearly 12,000 vicarious mourners, in a hall not built for the job of containing grief… and that's another thing, was Cave ever this famous? We're used to seeing him in rooms a tenth this size, proper concert halls designed for orchestras and operas and acoustics enthusiasts. Where have all these people come from? Will they, you know, get it?
Yes, whatever they were here for, whatever we all hoped for from a concert as eagerly but nervously anticipated as this, we all got it and then some. His sound crew, for a start, should be looking for a raise, because every screeching note and breathy vocal sounded pin-sharp, at least in the tier of seating opposite the stage. Given the cavernous space, an alarming intimacy was achieved; partly thanks to the sound, partly thanks to the trio of screens transmitting Cave's every movement to the wings and back rows in moody black and white, and very much because of the lack of distance Cave allowed between himself and his audience.
'This is fuckin' sexual harassment in the workplace!' he laughed, invigorated, with someone in the front row who appeared to be touching him rather delicately as he leaned over them and invited the contact during 'Higgs Boson Blues' (earlier in the song came a thrilling moment, when he placed another fan's hand on his breast and barked the 'BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM' of his own racing heartbeat at them). Later, during the encore's 'The Weeping Song' and 'Stagger Lee', he moved to a small podium in the audience and stood atop people's hands, winding his way back to the stage through the crowd with a Pied Piper trail of people who he led up there with him.
Big stages are usually the place for a greatest hits set, although Cave is one of those rare artists who manages to conjure someone's favourite song every time he writes. Yet he managed to narrow the odds on more people being pleased than not with striking, piano-led takes on 'The Ship Song' and 'Into My Arms', a carnal growl through 'From Her to Eternity', and a recasting of the Satanic protagonist in 'Red Right Hand' with the altered lyric 'you see his angry little tweets… I'm warning you people, just turn it off!' Who could he have been referring to?
What was pleasing to note was just how much the songs from Skeleton Tree didn't so much fit in amid this company, as take flight and measure up to Cave's past greats in every way. Presented as a diptych, 'Girl in Amber' and 'I Need You' – both pretty plainly an attempt to speak to his wife and the mother of his children through song about their tragedy – were heart-stopping. Even more so, 'Distant Sky's key lyric 'they told us our gods would outlive us / they told us our dreams would outlive us / but they lied' carried crushingly beautiful emotional weight.
It's easy to discuss a show like this and come to a glib conclusion like 'fans of Nick Cave would have loved it', yet that sells what happened here very short. As twelve thousand people might agree, this really wasn't some niche alternative act made big for the duration of one particularly well-received album. Cave is a transcendent performer at the best of times, and here, against all the odds, he channelled all the pain, soul-searching and hard work of the last two years into an uplifting, revelatory human experience.
As 'Skeleton Tree' closed the main set, he smiled as broadly as he could with tears in his eyes and raised a fist in the air. 'Thank you,' he said. 'Really, you have no idea.' As much as we could be, we were right there with him.
Seen at the Hydro, Glasgow, Wed 27 Sep.