Music

Live review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds bring their frightening best to Melbourne

Throughout his career Nick Cave has portrayed himself in a way that exudes a certain sense of power – his combination of confidence and bravado making him impenetrable and a fierce live performer. Standing before us now is a man wounded by a loss so profound, it imbues a sharp sting to every note on his latest album Skeleton Tree. It makes the weight of his live performance heavier than any morbid curiosity could bear, but also serves as an important return to the stage for the Australian icon.

When Cave first arrives on stage alongside the Bad Seeds he sits down on a chair to sing ‘Anthrocene’, an uncommon sight at one of his shows and one that makes you question whether he’s ready to be performing the new songs live. That’s not to say Cave’s lacking any prowess – he’s still seething and extending his arms, casting his silhouette across the Sidney Myer Music Bowl’s wide canopy and locking eyes with the crowd with his intense fixed gaze.

“It’s hard to make a crowd feel genuinely frightened but Cave and his Bad Seeds do so effortlessly.”

When Cave stands up to play ‘Jesus Alone’ he takes charge of the crowd like a conductor, stalking across the stage with a fixed determination and walking right up to the audience to rouse a reaction. Towards the end of the song Cave wails into the microphone, his pained cry not simply a flourish but rather a visceral reaction to his catastrophic loss. It’s during ‘Girl in Amber’ that Cave’s voice does crack, barely managing to utter the line “You kneel, lace up his shoes, your little blue eyed boy”. With this, you all at once feel his tremendous pain.

While there’s significant discomfort for Cave when performing songs off Skeleton Tree there’s a noticeable shift in his demeanour when it comes to playing the Bad Seeds’ older songs. When the band launch into ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, Cave switches from pensive to aggressive, surrendering himself to the crowd as they look up at him with awe and terror as he howls the song’s lyrics. You can hear the fear in his voice as he precariously dangles on the barrier, gripping onto the hands of his enraptured crowd. His band too are ferocious in their movement, especially Cave’s right-hand-man, Warren Ellis, who plays his violin as though it’s a chainsaw, swinging his arms around as he wields his instrument.

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Photo by Katie Fairservice

Once the band get stuck into the Bad Seeds’ back catalogue Cave is surprisingly jocular, even though his banter is mostly questioning the behaviour of some of the audience members and criticising the country’s noise curfews. The mood shifts to one of celebration as he plays ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Into My Arms’ back to back, the latter of which has the crowd of thousands singing along with Cave who still perfectly executes the song’s sentiment, 20 years on.

When the opening for ‘Red Right Hand’ chimes the stage turns into a ominous crimson which bathes the stage in an appropriately menacing light. Slow burning before its almighty crescendo, the Bad Seeds perfectly pace the tension before they unleash all hell. When they come into full force and the lights turn from red to white the experience is akin to hearing a crack of thunder followed by a flash of lightning. It’s hard to make a crowd feel genuinely frightened but Cave and his Bad Seeds do so effortlessly.

Cave returns to his chair to sing the aching ‘I Need You’, a song that is enhanced live by the Bad Seeds’ haunting backing vocals. A particularly poignant moment follows when the band play ‘Distant Sky’, a song that features the devastating vocals of soprano Else Torp, who’s projected onto the back wall of the canopy. Cave turns his head while playing piano to watch Torp’s image carefully, garnering the strength to deliver the shattering line “They told us our Gods would outlive us but they lied.” Ellis closes the song out with a moving violin solo that ensures the moment will be unforgettable.

Through his performance Cave offers an insight into the heart wrenching pain of grief but it’s clear that he finds a strange comfort onstage. While many would describe Cave’s return to the stage as brave, it seems performing isn’t so much a requisite of being a musician for him, but rather an absolute necessity.

Lead photo by Katie Fairservice