Nick Cave brings his Skeleton Tree tour to Manchester and Getintothis’ Banjo was there to pay witness.
Those of us who are long time Nick Cave fans must sometimes wonder just how long his upward trajectory can continue. We have seen him grow up in public, seen him evolve with the passing years and, 36 years since he burst into the general consciousness with The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire, he just seems to keep on getting better.
We are at the stage now where Cave is so far ahead of the pack, in terms of back catalogue, song quality and live performance, that he makes everyone else look like the shallow, insincere fame chasers they suddenly are. To be a Nick Cave fan is sometimes to forsake all others.
Cave’s latest tour sees the coming together of two issues that seem to be mutually exclusive; he is playing his first arena shows in the UK and the album he is ostensibly promoting is his most stripped back and intimate recording yet, thin and almost-there.
It would be easy for a place like Manchester Arena to ruin the effect of Skeleton Tree’s deeply personal confessionals, as big gigs can be difficult things when it comes to building a rapport with an audience or to get across the details of quieter songs to such a large audience.
But Cave and The Bad Seeds are consummate performers and are well used to audiences of this size at festivals the world over, so as it turns out there is no need to worry, The Manchester Arena is sold out and Cave and Co step up to their new level very well and very comfortably.
Although Cave’s vocals on Skeleton Tree sound threadbare and fragile, as if singing them took the very last of his strength and emotional commitment, tonight he made its songs fit the live environment of a Bad Seeds gig rather than the other way around.
Arriving on stage to a backing track featuring sounds from Skeleton Tree’s opening track Jesus Alone, Cave takes a seat and starts the set with another stand out track from the same album, Anthrocene. It’s a downbeat start to the set, but also an immensely powerful one, as Cave sings “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose…and I hear you been looking out for something to love” and the first chill falls upon the silent audience, mere minutes into the show.
Any concerns about Nick Cave the performer not being able to connect with his audience in Manchester’s cavernous arena are soon dispelled; part of the stage set up is three small platforms, a short skip away, that he uses to literally reach his audience.
From the first song onwards, Cave is in amongst his throng, he holds out his hands for support and the audience reciprocate by offering him theirs and holding him up. He leans into his crowd and again they support him. He knows they will – he trusts them to do so and they do. It is a beautiful series of interactions that make the cavernous arena seem intimate and small.
The Bad Seeds also rise to the challenges perfectly. Cave has long surrounded himself with superb musicians and the current lineup is established and well drilled in doing what they do. Tonight they cover themselves in glory as huge washes of sound spill from them in complete sympathy with Cave’s songs. And for this show, as with every Bad Seeds appearance, special credit goes to Warren Ellis, the ringleader of tonight’s ebbs and swells.
Jesus Alone is next, and Cave uses its lyrics to great effect, focusing on members of the audience from his point on the edge and sings directly to them “With my voice, I am calling you” and again his connection with the audience is made explicit, like no other performer I have witnessed.
At the gigs that we generally deem to be particularly special, there may be a moment or two that are particularly memorable, but tonight’s gig is full with them, almost too many to mention. Cave focusing on individual people and singing “In love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you laugh/I move, you move” straight to them; holding an audience member’s hand against his chest and singing “Can you feel my heart beat” during Higgs Boson Blues; the sheer intensity they reach on Tupelo – moment after moment, etched on my mind for eternity.
Responding to one audience member who is repeatedly drawing attention to Cave’s purple socks, he stops singing and, mid song, says “Are we done? I mean I believe in freedom of speech but shut the fuck up!” Later in proceedings, Cave removes a shoe, takes off his sock and gives it to his tormentor with the words “You’re only getting one though” At another point, a fan offers up a handkerchief and Cave takes it saying “How very considerate”, wipes his brow and gives it back.
Towards the middle of Tupelo, Cave pulls a young kid from the audience, maybe 14 or 15, the kid is wearing a Bad Seeds t-shirt and doesn’t seem in the slightest bit put out at being on stage in front of thousands of people, with Nick Cave. Instead he matches him move for move and mouths the lyrics with Cave. I get the impression that if this is being filmed, we may see this clip on one of those Before They Were Famous type TV programs when he is grown up and is playing arenas his own band, although this may just be a flight of fancy on my part.
Over the course of their 16 studio albums, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have amassed a body of work like no other and they are able to draw on this for their gigs. Classic follows classic, all transformed by the sheer power of Cave and band in full flight. From Her To Eternity proves that although they are touring an album of slow, slender songs, they can still unleash the storm when they choose to do so.
It takes a great deal of courage for Cave to sing songs from Skeleton Tree night after night and revisiting the feelings and circumstances that were present when he recorded them. It I still difficult to listen to them in a live setting, Girl In Amber in particular just razes me to the ground, it is an astonishing, emotional song. But while it is a difficult album to listen to, Skeleton Tree provides many of the night’s highlights.
But too soon, it is over and Cave walks off followed by the Bad Seeds. For their much demanded encore, they start with the wonderous The Weeping Song. During this, Cave leaves the stage entirely and starts to climb into the crowd in the seats, at the Arena’s left hand side. One smiling fan takes this as an excuse for a cheeky selfie. Other phones appear and Cave bats them away, climbing over the backs of seats and further into the crowd.
His is a very physical performance and it is a shock to remember that he turned 60 a few days ago. I remember reading with admiration that Iggy Pop stagedived on his 60th birthday; on tonight’s showing Nick Cave could have taught him a thing or two about growing old disgracefully.
As the band strike up Stagger Lee, Cave starts to pull people out of the audience and lead them on stage. He soon has an organized stage invasion on his hands and focuses on a few individuals, singing straight to their faces. The young lad is back on stage and again singing along , this time to one of Cave’s goriest and sweariest murder ballads. This kid knows his Nick Cave!
Usually a stage invasion means that this is the last song, but Cave gets them all to sit down for one last song and starts Push The Sky Away. The assembled form part of the backdrop, their waving hands adding to the spectacle.
It is hard to see where Cave will go from here, how he can continue his run of form, how he can follow his emotional trajectory’s upward arc. On the other hand, Cave has made a career out of doing what he wants or, perhaps more accurately, what he feels he should, and on the strength of tonight’s performance it would be a foolish person who would bet against him continuing to deliver his art to the same high standard he has set himself so far.
On tonight’s evidence, Nick Cave still seems to be incapable of anything other than brilliance. Fucking incredible.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Lucy McLachlan