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Live Report - Nick Cave

Posted on Friday, 1 May 2015 | No Comments

In: the least solo 'solo' tour imaginable.

Amidst the usual flurry of in-jokes and suitably barbed asides, this telling little titbit found its way onto the Twitter of Britpop heel turned indie maverick (turned...well, bloke shouting at the television, essentially) Luke Haines. When looking at Nick Cave's ongoing critical and commercial success, there seems to be very little precedent: most of the major rock and roll songwriters have gone through at least one period of critical and commercial downturn which, thus far, Cave has eluded (think Dylan in the eighties or Springsteen's nineties), and has manage to retain a certain cult status whilst still holding the clout to sell out sizeable venues in just minutes, even without his long-term backing band in tow or any new album to promote. His current status - a fifty-seven year old who has never really stopped working or gone away for a sizeable period, never suffered a sizeable backlash from either writers or punters, whose fanbase has slowly swelled over the years without hitting a clear plateau - is fairly unprecedented. Even Leonard Cohen had his years in the wilderness before his recent late-in-the-day triumphs.
That said: not for the first time is a promise of a Nick Cave solo tour more euphemistic than factual. Previous 'solo' tours in the late nineties and early noughties featured a small ensemble that eventually evolved into the raucous mid-life crisis rock band Grinderman: this time around, Nick Cave features alongside four bandmates - including long-time Bad Seeds members Martyn Casey on bass, Thomas Wydler on drums, and Cave's primary foil Warren Ellis on violin, mandocaster, keys and just about anything else - for a live band that's more stripped-back and suited to his more contemplative, piano-driven material than the full Bad Seeds rock extravaganza, but one still more than capable of bringing Cave's nosier material to life as well. Exactly why this line-up is designated a 'solo band' as opposed to the Bad Seeds is a curiosity given that a similarly slimmed down, piano-led line-up toured in late 2013 and produced the Live from KRCW record as the Bad Seeds, but given that these UK dates sold out in mere minutes back in October, evidently his Mr. 15% is earning his keep with such marketing tactics.  If there is any real purpose to this latest expedition (beyond flogging eye-wateringly priced copies of his latest book The Sick Bag Song on the merch desk), it's perhaps to allow Cave to continue even further down the more beautiful, smaller scale sound of the last Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away before reconstituting the full band for whatever he has planned for the follow-up.

Whatever those assembled at The Sage thought they were buying tickets for, the presence of Nick Cave in Gateshead seems to be enough on its own. The balance of those his age and those young enough to be his children is around even, the conversations outside revolve around just how many times people have seen him before, and there's still pockets of fans gathering as close to the stage as the seating will allow to get as close to the man as possible. Yes, Cave might have achieved such recognition and devotion through decades of superb work and his renowned live charisma, but even a long-time Cave aficionado like myself has to agree slightly with Haines - it's not hard to suppose that he could just come on stage, blow his nose and sod off again and still have the crowd in raptures. How does an artist really go about making an impression or marking a real achievement when success is built-in to such an extent?

On this evidence, Cave's answer is simple: refuse to give less than your all. Even before Cave himself steps on stage, his band are busy setting off the unsettling bass loops and patterns of Water's Edge from Push The Sky Away, the recent triumph that married the beautific longing of his more reflective material to his more tormented, apocalyptic side in a manner unprecedented in his work. This shuddering arrangement still proves no match for the cries of the audience as the (anti) hero of the piece makes his appearance on the stage. If 20,000 Days on Earth provided any real insight into the mind of Nick Cave the man, it proved once and for all that Nick Cave the act is a full-time affair that he will never drop whilst the public eye is upon him. He casually tosses aside sheet music after each song, leaves the piano to prowl the stage and plays up to his image with pantomime glee - choice interactions include (half-jokingly) commanding an audience member clicking their fingers out of time to stop, clambering across the front rows and gyrating on top of one delighted fan during Higgs Boson Blues and then bringing the same fan up to perform backing vocals for The Lyre of Orpheus. All of which could easily be so many cliches in action, but the investment with which he continues to perform the character of Nick Cave, the intensity he still brings to his material and the genuine delight he seems to take in playing for tonight's crowd makes for something truly mesmerising. If the Nick Cave persona is something of a pantomime act by this juncture, he still retains the ability to return to that old intensity and channel it in full - From Her to Eternity and Up Jumped The Devil, this set's representatives of Old Testament Cave, still exude a palpable, paltating demonic force. Darkness is never really banished: it just becomes a more trained, refined beast.
There's still a smattering of the expected big guns - rightly acclaimed they might be, but will there ever be a Nick Cave gig that doesn't feature The Ship Song, Red Right Hand and The Mercy Seat in some capacity? - but it's the less expected material that he uses this adjusted set-up to delve into that has the biggest impact. Two surprising choices from The Boatman's Call, the soft organs of the religion-as-sex sacrament of Brompton Oratory and the accordion-led mantra Black Hair, gain rapturous responses, while a fair smattering of material from No More Shall We Part is received in hushed awe, including a winkingly crowbarred reference to "Gateshead...and Newcastle" in God Is In The House and a beautiful take on Love Letter, perhaps the most unabashedly pretty song in Cave's canon. The material from Push the Sky Away thrives in this context also, Higgs Boson Blues retaining its prowling power and late in the day triumph Jubilee Street taking its time to hit full velocity but finally launching into a chills-down-the-spine cods that rounds off the main set in explosive form.

As much as tonight might be about a 'solo' Nick Cave though, what this smaller line-up really underscores is the continued brilliance and importance of his side-men. Plenty of talents have come and gone through the ranks over the years, be they long-term cornerstones like Blixa Bargeld and the rock of stability and wisdom that was Mick Harvey or more short-term yet still significant players such as James Johnston, Kid Congo Powers or Barry Adamson (the latter originally announced as part of the line-up for this tour but absent on solo duties for now), each of them has leaving their mark in some way. This setting then allows us to appreciate further the vital work of Wydler, a powerhouse on the drums as at ease with the complex nuances of the Push The Sky Away material as the primal thud of Jack The Ripper - played, as per Cave's instructions, "fuckin' evil" - the astonishing array of sounds, feedback and loops Ellis conjured out of his viola and pedal set-up, and most of all the sublime groove of Casey, the powerhouse whose fluid basslines have fuelled much of the Bad Seeds' finest work.

Casey even takes a brief moment in the spotlight to obliquely dedicate final encore Push the Sky Away to Freddie Grey and the people of Baltimore fighting against police violence, adding another layer to what is already one of the most haunting, ethereal songs Cave has ever penned. "Some people say that it's just rock'n'roll / Oh, but it gets right down to your soul," he sings, an offering to the fans that have stuck by him, to the muse he still chases down, to all who have ever fought for some ideal or purpose, a note of final, tragic grace and gentle defiance that explains his continued importance and potency with succinct eloquence.

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