TSB Bank Arena
Tuesday, January 17
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ return to Wellington is just the third show of the brand new tour, the first dates in a couple of years, the first since the release of Skeleton Tree, the first since the death of Cave’s son Arthur; it’s also the first time The Bad Seeds have played Wellington since 2005 – with Cave and a truncated line-up wowing audiences just over two years ago. And if the churches and graveyards have almost always been favourite themes of Cave’s they found their deep connection – as catharsis – on his most recent album with his longstanding backing band.
The show opens with three songs from Skeleton Tree, Anthrocene and Jesus Alone dirge-like, brutal, Magneto similarly haunting and mournful but with the first glimpses of Cave’s stately melodicism peeking in and around Warren Ellis’ deft, gentle piano motifs.
From there it’s to Higgs Boson Blues, a four-year old song arriving like an old favourite, like something Cave has lived with for nearly 40 years as it propels him to the front rows to take up his stance at his pulpit, gripping onto audience hands, conjuring the music, beckoning his people. What’s clear – in early 2017 – is that Cave needs his band members and his fans; needs them more than he’s ever needed them before. It’s also immediately clear that he has their full support, he has our ear and their collective intuition.
Reports of a paralysed, broken man inform this version of Cave’s carnival barking preacher-man, still with the snake-hipped swagger, the pantomime of pulling pages from
the rostrum to toss dramatically aside, his shadow stalking the second storey of fans. Higgs Boson’s laconic sway sets up the first of many memorable, hypnotic performances from Cave in the foreground, The Bad Seeds in semi-stealth mode, Thomas Wydler methodically building a groove in the spaces around Martyn Casey’s proud nods of bass, Jim Sclavunos cutting through as percussionist switching from tambourine and shakes to bells and vibes.
The one-two punch of early, early numbers From Her To Eternity and Tupelo has Cave and band at full noise – ominous, affecting. If he’s playing any sort of preacher here it’s the one from the comic book series, the microphone lead whips across the stage, a perfectly timed drum fill provides the exclamation mark, clattering percussion and the drip-torture
prods of bass prove relentless as Cave groans and moans Eternity’s title lyric in repetition. Tupelo rides in on the back of that song to suggest another musical vision of the apocalypse all together, the drums tribal, galloping. Here’s where The Bad Seeds’ whisper becomes a shout, demented scream, and it happens so smoothly, the abrasive noisescapes just another string in the musical bow.
Jubilee Street, as with Higgs Boson, is one of Push The Sky Away’s handful of majestic tunes; songs that feel like they’ve been with Cave for a decade or more. We get a whiff of the oily riff before the song even arrives, a gutter-blues with a melodic sweep that’s searching for the stars.
Something that’s very clear at this point is how skilled Cave and crew are at negotiating the waters, at setting up a buoyancy for the audience. The clatter and clang arrives as reminder of the old (good) times, the sombre new songs aren’t so much smuggled in, but a warning flare sets them up. Cave takes to the piano and tells us he’ll need our help for The Ship Song, it’s the best I’ve heard that old gem, stoic, tender. But actually we were readying for what followed, our choir giving everything we’ve got to Into My Arms. Those two piano-led ballads calm everything down and point to Skeleton Tree. Girl In Amber and I Need You were both almost hard to take on the album (beautiful, almost overwhelmingly sad) but live they simply showcase new (further) depths in Cave’s songwriting, new vulnerabilities. I Need You, particularly, has Cave reaching down into both himself and the song to provide a soulful, tear-stained vocal.
Red Right Hand’s opening bell and then a wee brush with the snare drum will light up any night and so it does here, particularly as a ‘lift’ after the brace of Skeleton Tree songs. This is one of those songs Cave couldn’t kill if he wanted to, couldn’t fuck up if he tried. Oddly
he does – nearly – fuck up The Mercy Seat straight after, a false-start laughed off as Cave arrived into the tune a verse ahead of himself before stopping it to point out how many billion times he’s sung that tune. Wydler’s military might on the snare and toms gives Cave’s tale of Christ its big lift and just as we’re having the new songs paired off and presented these old tales seem to speak from a new angle – not only that they’re proof that Cave’s entertainer instinct remains; he knows what his audience wants and deserves. He knows what to offer. And when.
Sad as Skeleton Tree’s songs are – or were on the album – here they’re resplendent, moving, magical but almost – almost – joyful in a way. I’ve wiped tears from my eyes during Eternity, Tupelo and Jubilee at any rate. Something so visceral in that run that I’m nearly wiped out.
Distant Sky, elegiac, haunting, is again somehow served as nearly celebratory in this live context – Danish soprano Else Torp appears on the big screen, her pre-recorded vocal part so crucial obviously.
The set closes with Skeleton Tree’s title track. It’s the perfect closer. In just three shows The Bad Seeds have varied and seemingly perfected the show’s running order.
A lengthy encore begins with Mermaids – “she was a catch, we were a match…” – yet another reminder of Push The Sky’s strength/s, of the lengths of Cave’s songwriting. Several albums didn’t get a look in tonight, several very good albums and yet everything that was offered seemed, well, correct, you never felt like you were missing out. Okay, I could have done without God Is In The House, but it goes over okay. I’ve never quite seen the appeal of that song and yet every time I’ve seen Cave play it’s been part of the show. Oh well.
Nobody’s Baby Now arrives next, after a call for requests. And this does feel like a treat. A blast from the past, a fine example of Cave’s gift for this type of balladry. And then Stagger Lee. Which gets sillier as the years go by, but you have to applaud the commitment to character, and Casey’s stumble-lurch bassline is a nice treatment.
We’re sent home with Push The Sky Away’s title track – not only is it (of course) the perfect finale, a fine farewell, it points to a clever chronology, that last song from his penultimate album to date stands as obvious antecedent for the musical themes and ideas on Skeleton Tree.
A two-hour sermon consisting of some of Cave’s finest songs. A reminder that there are several more in that bursting back catalogue. And no pity party here, rather a reminder that Nick Cave is not just a song (and ‘dance’) man but also a whip-smart bandleader. In and around serving and selling each song, providing the panto only when required, he’s conducting the start and finish of every song, he’s adding his own ivories to set the pace, the place the groove, he’s aware of each and every moment going on around him and within any song. It’s a virtuoso performance in that sense. And The Bad Seeds remain not only stoic but mesmeric. Cave has his audience and his band. And we, as a result, have his songs – and these extraordinary performances. Hard to beat that first time I saw the band, over a decade ago, but there was an emotional weight to this performance that was undeniable.