By Caidraic Heffernan
For many, Nick Cave is a peculiar beast. As a lyricist, he is unafraid to tackle subjects many songwriters would shy away from, not least for fear of reproach by their peers, but Cave – perhaps thanks to his Punk Rock beginnings with The Birthday Party – shares no such qualms. Cave’s individuality extends even to his image, where he has fashioned a working uniform for himself of immaculate, gothic tailoring – merely adding to the sense of darkness shrouding him that comes hand in hand with his chosen territory. Throughout their discography, Nick Cave and his ever-loyal Bad Seeds have continuously carved themselves a mysterious, macabre and magnetic corner of musical history in which they can experiment to their heart’s content, pushing boundaries and denying expectations as they go. Their most recent album, Skeleton Tree, became one steeped in the shadow of loss when, in July 2015, with the album’s production near complete, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur – one of his twin sons – died when he accidentally fell from a cliff near the family’s current home in Brighton, East Sussex. Cave decided that in order to attempt to come to terms with his grief, he would try and document it through his work, and thus with lyrical redactions and more months in the studio, the album was transformed into a close and visceral insight into Cave’s psyche in this initial period of grief. Upon release, it was heralded as a tragic, intense and powerful triumph of songwriting, receiving widespread acclaim on an international scale. It was mostly this album, along with some classics from their back catalogue, that comprised his set-list for the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 2017 tour.
Recently, I was lucky enough to witness Cave live in concert at the O2, during the final show of the UK leg.The time is approximately 7:30PM, Cave is expected to come on stage at around 8:15, and I still need to get from my hotel in Limehouse over to Greenwich Peninsula. I bundle myself into a cab and find my way to The O2, where I’m a little surprised to find that even whilst queueing to pick up my tickets, there’s an electricity in the air, as the anticipation of the die-hard fandom floods the entire place. I’m enveloped in a sea of leather jackets, heeled boots and Dr Martens. Eventually I get my ticket and wrestle my way to the gig entrance; the time is 8:15, and murmurings of Cave now starting at half 8 are circulated – my palpitations briefly cease. After making my way through security I’m hit with a sudden wave of heat and noise, the stage, some 100 feet away, is bathed in crimson, and the familiar skeletal silhouette of Cave is stood, commanding centre stage. His voice croons softly like a preacher to his sermon, and the vibrations from the pulsating beat are everywhere, echoing throughout and across the venue over seas of awe-struck fans.
I wrestle my way further forward, ducking, diving, tailing strangers with trays of drinks until eventually, I reach the stage. As I find my way there, there’s a visceral, mechanical groan of bass as Jesus Alone begins, Ellis’ guitar line wails like a siren, and I’m struck for the first time by the realisation that this sound is entirely separate in atmosphere to that of the album version, but not in the usual instrumentation or production aspect. Cave is not soft or pensive here, as he often sounds on the album, he is not mellow or restrained. He sings with a ferocity that whips the crowd into a frenzy, an inescapable energy that burns through him, down to those adoring fans who scream and claw at him, and back all the way to the furthest reaches of the building. Cave, in his performance, is transforming these songs into visceral, stirring mantras. He’s feeding off the boundless energy that the people below are throwing at him, and he’s throwing it right back tenfold.
Cave’s performance builds and builds gradually with each song, so that by the time we reach the familiar gentle opening chords of Higgs Boson Blues, a fan favourite, Cave is nothing short of a Cult leader. The songs now seem designed almost with live performance in mind. They take on an entirely different persona as he bellows and roars with an animal growl that’s equal parts seduction and repulsion, and the Bad Seeds work hard to build the soundscapes to surround him, roaring guitars and powerful drums filling the audience with the sense of power and dread that only a live show can. As we reach crescendo, Cave is literally throwing everything he has at the audience, not least himself, when he suddenly settles down for a brief lull in the energy, whispering “Can you hear my heart beat?” in what feels like vulnerability incarnate. Here, I’m within spitting distance of Cave, and I notice that those around me are all now reaching up towards him, like lepers in the presence of Christ. I’m compelled to join them, and I realise the hands are held in anticipation, as Cave begins to saunter over towards us. He kneels before us, repeating his solitary question, and he places our hands to his chest. Some swoon, others roar, one individual even cries with what I can only assume is joy, but the tension in the air is nothing short of palpable. When it’s my turn to hold his hand, I feel an incredible rush of adrenaline as he grips me, and then with masterful theatricality, the music once again swells to a scream, and Cave rises to deliver the final few verses, with energy instantly renewed.
I’ve been a Nick Cave fan for a little while now, but there’s a visceral, biblical fury in Cave’s live shows that is something completely distinct from his album work. Whether it’s him cavorting across the stage to the ominous chimes of The Mercy Seat, or standing monolithic as he chants Red Right Hand to rapturous applause, one comes away from the concert inescapably feeling that they’ve experienced something of a personal epiphany. I cannot think of a past concert I’ve been to that can really compete with the atmosphere, emotion or raw power of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. There’s something quite indescribable about having the swaggering, filthy venom of a song like Stagger Lee belted out at you live, and I think it’s testament to the power of Cave’s showmanship that even in a space as grand and expansive as the O2 Arena, not a moment passed when it didn’t feel as intimate as a confessional.