Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds premiered their latest album ‘Skeleton Tree’, performing it in its near entirety at the newly built ICC, Sydney Theatre on January 20th, 2017. Cave’s fan-based filled the 9000 capacity theatre with ease, leaving few seats empty in the theatre now standing in replacement of what was once a gig-circuit staple, The Sydney Entertainment Centre.
Support act ‘The Necks’ – an Australian Experimental Jazz trio – established what would be the overarching theme of the evening, as they performed a 45 minute improvisational, ambient set which morphed slowly from soft and serene to dissonant and turbulent. Their compositional style ran in a similar vein to the free-form, noise-art influenced soundscapes featured on ‘Skeleton Tree’. As the audience began to settle into their seats the trio – comprised of Chris Abrahams (piano and Hammond organ), Tony Buck (drums, percussion and electric guitar), and Lloyd Swanton (bass guitar and double bass) – dived down the rabbit hole of the spontaneous, and the unfamiliar.
After nearly an hour long break between bands, audience agitation was briskly curbed as Nick and The Bad Seeds opened with a trio of songs from ‘Skeleton Tree’, beginning with ‘Anthrocene’, a dark and free-formed lament on all things human: love, loss and longing.
‘Oh, the fine winds gone, and this sweet world is so much older…’
From within pale shadow Cave’s baritone voice carried warmly across the theatre, gliding atop his seven-piece band with an acute sense of sorrow. They followed with ‘Jesus Alone’, its high-pitched, Theremin-esque howl haunting the theatre like a long-forgotten specter, while the band performed effortlessly within the formlessness of the song. ‘You’re a young man waking in blood that is not yours… you’re a young girl full of forbidden energy, flickering in the gloom… you’re a drug addict lying on your back in a Tijuana hotel… with my voice I am calling you…’. Cave paced back and forth along the stage, cloaked in his typical attire – a black suit – raising his hands intermittently like a mystic conducting a séance, ushering in the existence of something ethereal and otherworldly.
The band went deeper into the free-form with ‘Magneto’, where Cave projected a palpable sense of the grim and the unrequited in the song’s chorus, his voice swaying through the lyrics: ‘I love, you love, I love, you love… and one more time with feeling’, the melody’s trail diminishing to a rumbling earthen murmur.
‘From Her to Eternity’ - a throwback to the group’s first album and their gothic, proto-punk period – where Cave slipped into the obsessive, deranged, and visceral energy of the song with ease. Here, Cave was nimble, falling to his knees with swiftness and passion and rising to bellow forth the dark narrative ideations of a man swept away in his own obsessions. Warren Ellis – long-time friend, bandmate, and collaborator – shone through particularly on this performance with an exceptionally appropriate distorted violin solo, its raucous sound wrestled within the song like a bearded madman in a straight-jacket. The song finished: “It’s too fucking hot in this suit” said Cave, exhausted, “… but we have to keep up appearances”.
Cave and The Bad Seeds’ stylistic range came into focus with the ‘The Ship Song’- Cave letting out an emotive sigh before sounding the first chords – and ‘Into My Arms’, which subdued the audience into an under-the-breath sing along: its gentle, theistic sentiments clearly holding a tender place in the hearts of many in attendance. ‘I Need You’, the closest thing to a ballad from ‘Skeleton Tree’, darkened the mood and reminded all of the grave incident shadowing the album: the passing of Cave’s son in late 2015.
Fan favorite ‘Red Right Hand’ found Cave skulking back and forth along the stage, a shadowy figure bathed in blood-red light. ‘Mercy Seat’ followed, with Cave and co. showing no signs of exhaustion amongst the driving pulse of the song, which delves into themes of morality and justice. The first set concluded with two more numbers from ‘Skeleton Tree’: ‘Distant Sky’, and the title track.
Nick and the band reemerged to enthusiastic applause for an encore that segued from ‘Mermaids’ into ‘Jack the Ripper’ (the latter at the behest of the crowd). The highlight of the band’s second set was certainly ‘Stagger Lee’, which came close to tearing down the newly built stadium, and bringing to tears all children within a 20km radius through its vivid lyrical violence. The set was closed in a similar vein to which it began with the somber and ambient, yet deceptively optimistic, ‘Push The Sky Away’ – a song affirming artistic courage.
Few bands maintain the originality and inventiveness of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. To experience Cave’s intense emotional energy live is a whole other level of engagement. His performance was lively, his band were tight and energetic, and the career-spanning set performed by the group gifted an experience of both new and old works. The exhibition of Cave’s latest album displayed the emotive power of its musical experimentalism, as well as its emotional depth - a stark statement of individualism, reinvention and performative dynamism.
- Jesus Alone
- Magneto (‘one more time with feeling’)
- Higgs Boson Blues
- From her to eternity
- Jubilee Street
- The Ship Song
- Into My Arms
- Girl in Amber
- I Need You
- Red Right Hand
- The Mercy Seat
- Distant Sky
- Skeleton Tree
- Jack the Ripper (instead of ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’)
- Stagger Lee
- People ain’t no good
- Push The Sky Away