My jaw dropped when I got the message. It really did drop, leaving my mouth wide open. I suspect an audible yelp escaped from it too. It said I could go see Nick Cave, provided I could write some words about it afterwards. Tickets I’d been coveting for months, unable to afford them, now falling squarely in my lap like a golden snowflake. The feeling was not too different from receiving one of those scam emails where the freshly orphaned prince of Ghana casually offers you a cut of $30 million. When something seems too good to be true, I guess it usually is. But this time I didn’t think twice, just pinched myself, ironed a shirt and started rolling North-East toward Red Hill.
‘Twenty minutes to half-an-hour’s drive from the CBD,’ the website had said. Two hours after setting off and with only the red glow of a hundred brake lights to look upon, I wondered if my luck hadn’t evaporated in a flash of mean irony. Was I getting a golden ticket only to burn it in a static procession of Suburus? The blue dot on the GPS sat still like a dead fly. I breathed deep and hoped for the best.
It took centuries, but the bottleneck cleared, dispersing blissfully, a headache after codeine. Home stretch. A big, freestanding LED sign – the sort the use to sign roadworks – read simply NICK CAVE, with a luminous arrow. Imagine being the sort of person who gets your name put on a roadworks sign. It’s crazy. We crawled up Red Hill, the dark slope festooned with eucalypts and punters.
From the top, the view is magic, a panorama of speckled orange light on a black plateau, a shy huddle of skyscrapers somewhere on the horizon. We tear our eyes away and spring towards the amphitheatre. Minutes later, the crowd’s chatter swells to a roar as members of The Bad Seeds filter into view.
Cave appears, cleanshaven, impeccably suited as is usual. He growls nonchalantly, cheekily, about photographers and things, before they slip unceremoniously into “We No Who U R” from this year’s ‘Push The Sky Away,’ released less than a month ago. It’s a contemplative, quietly chugging track with hints of contemporary electronic pop adorning vintage Cave balladry. This leads into the majestic “Jubilee Street” off the same record, a fantastic song about a prostitute written from the perspective of a distressed former John, flaunting lines like “these days I go down town in my tie and tails / I got a fetus on a leash.” As the song approaches its heady climax, Warren Ellis flings his guitar to the ground and begins to saw at his violin like a madman, his hair flailing like strands of smoke in a storm. More new efforts follow (“Wide Lovely Eyes” and the spectacular, slow-burn, Miley Cyrus-referencing “Higgs Boson Blues”) and it’s a good tactic, an early reminder that Cave’s songwriting prowess and the Bad Seeds’ gift for evocative accompaniment haven’t dwindled. I really think the “Push The Sky Away” songs are as good as any in the Bad Seeds’ catalogue, but inevitably the howls are louder when the set veers towards old favourites: “From Her To Eternity” is perfectly ferocious, loud, choking superbly on its own venom. Ghost-trainy spook anthem “Red Right Hand” is rendered flawlessly, bells and all, which is interesting, as most songs tonight get delivered with a degree of creative license or rustic, reckless approximation. This one is note-for-note reproduced from the record, and its thick pastiche-factor is all the better for it. It ends heavy, sending sparks into the air. But no relief just yet: the brooding, simmering “Stranger Than Kindness” (“That’s my favourite Bad Seeds song” announces Cave) the intense “Jack The Ripper” and psycho-garage hedonism of “Deanna” all follow in quick succession, enveloping the throng in a seething world of deviousness, violence, misery and adrenaline. Cave is ever-composed, audacious (clutching the hand of a audience-shoulder-mounted teenage girl for a whole song), with an austere swagger and faultless delivery. Ellis is all guts and wild abandon, while mainstays Ed Kuepper, Martyn Casey (“From Perth,” Cave reminds us), Barry Adamson, Conway Savage, Thomas Wylder and Jim Slavunos hold it down in that beautifully imperfect, intuitive, chameleon way as only the Bad Seeds can.
Piano-soaked slowness enters the equation (“Love Letter” and “Your Funeral, My Trial”) before the night’s opening act (traffic jam casualty), the legendary Mark Lanegan, joins Cave at the mic for “The Weeping Song.” Equally distressing classic, the Johnny-Cash endorsed “The Mercy Seat” provides an immense faux-closer, but they return: here comes the violent, vulgar, mythic “Stagger Lee,” and the simple, naked “Push The Sky Away” where uncharacteristically broad and vernacular lyrics float in a hazy pool of organ before disappearing over the horizon. Cave thanks the crowd with the grace of a gentleman, but doesn’t hang around to lap up the applause. The tireless musician, singer, songwriter and whatever-else is away, unseen, along with his brilliant, painterly, intoxicating band of unique and skewed geniuses. While numerous groups who’ve enjoyed decades of success refuse to rest on their laurels and keep recording and touring, few do it with the skill, the elegance, the vigour and the relevancy of The Bad Seeds. I feel I can say without fear of hyperbole that this is perhaps Australia’s greatest ever band; they’ve had the odd misstep, but their career as a whole snowballs into something magical and near-perfect. I’d never seen these guys before. I was prepared to be disappointed as a bunch of my musical heroes went through the motions. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got one of the most accomplished yet human, thoughtful yet visceral rock shows I’ve ever seen. Sometimes things seem too good to be true, but they’re true anyway. This band’s steadfastness is unbelievable. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds will be with us ‘til kingdom come.