After 33 years, 16 studio albums and countless line-up changes, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have made it to arenas. Many were critical of the move to a more anaemic, corporate and soulless setting, especially because of his last album, the sombre, tenebrous masterpiece Skeleton Tree – which this tour is in aid of. The critics have been silenced, however, as his show at The O2 Arena was nothing short of a masterpiece; an intimate, brooding performance for every single member of the 20,000 capacity venue and a mesmerising, intense religious experience you’d be hard pushed to find exceeded at the Vatican.
With no support act and doors opening two hours before Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds arrived on stage – opening with a Skeleton Tree triple header of ‘Anthrocene’, ‘Jesus Alone’ and ‘Magneto’ – could be seen as a risk. Not for Nick Cave, though, who revelled in controlling his audience like a satanic cult leader with constant waxings and wanings from the soulful, to the bizarre, to the blitzing antagonism. From the first notes of Warren Ellis’ piano on ‘Anthrocene’ the audience were gratified and enchanted.
Then came the onslaught of aggression in the form of the older favourites ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, ‘From Her to Eternity’ and live favourite ‘Tupelo’. This is where Cave showed his now trademark forays into the crowd, with his movement never stopping as he switched from side to side of the crowd like a tiger stalking its prey. There’s an animalistic quality to Cave, which simply isn’t harnessed in any other performer. His screaming of: “listen to the beating of their blood” from ‘Tupelo’ into the faces of the front row is an intense experience, but it does nothing but increase their admiration for him.
Once again, Cave turned it down a notch with a selection of slower ballads. ‘Jubilee Street’ showcased Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ electric rapport as it saw them experimenting with pace. It is songs like this, fan favourite ‘Red Right Hand’ and ‘The Mercy Seat’ that exhibit Warren Ellis’ sheer talent. When Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey left The Bad Seeds they left a hole that I never thought would be filled again, but Ellis’ class and musicality make The Bad Seeds into a robust, tight unit. If Cave is the star, then Ellis is the director; pulling the strings from behind, a silent hero who goes unnoticed.
The main part of the set came to an end with two of Skeleton Tree’s intense highlights. ‘Distant Sky’, featuring Danish opera singer Else Torp, is arguably the saddest song of the set. So much so, that the veil of Cave’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ mystique began to fall, at one point during the song’s zenith, as he appeared to be welling up. It was moments like this that made the performance feel so intimate. Cave opened himself up just enough to appear human, but not enough to lose any of his domineering star appeal.
The encore encapsulated everything about Cave and his live performance. First was The Good Son’s ‘The Weeping Song’ which arguably saw the biggest singalong of the night, with Cave powering his way through the crowd. Coming back to the stage with a herd of people, creating the safest stage invasion you’ll see for ‘Stagger Lee’, with everyone on stage wanting a bit of their hero. After getting them to sit down, Cave then segued into a beautiful rendition of 2013’s ‘Push the Sky Away’ which featured a moment of magic. Walking through the crowd, Cave found Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie with a “Bobby Gillespie! Fuck!” and gave him a mic to sing the chorus to the song. Whether it was planned or not (Cave and Gillespie are well-known friends), it’s a spellbinding, impromptu occurrence that could only be offered up by an artist of Nick Cave’s magnitude.
It was his ability to take the crowd on a musical journey through ebbs and flows without ever losing them, not even for a second, which was most impressive. Ultimately, Cave presented a masterclass into putting on a performance of the highest quality in a big venue, something that many, many artists cannot do. During the encore, someone shouted out “you’re a legend!”, with Cave replying, “not yet, give me a few years”. Don’t listen to him, this was a legend offering a legendary spectacle.
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