Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (1)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
North Gardens, Ballarat
Sunday 15 January 2017
EUREKA! NICK CAVE RETURNS
In his song Anthrocene, Nick Cave offers an evocative image of animals at dusk preparing to ‘pull the night around their shoulders.’ Standing in a field in Ballarat as the sun set over Lake Windouree, I was preparing to do just the same. Unlike the animals in the song, however, I wasn’t taking shelter from some unknown menace, I was just relieved the day’s scorching sun was finally sinking behind the stage.
Anthrocene was the opening song on the first of Nick Cave’s Victorian concerts for his Skeleton Tree tour.
Anthrocene or Anthropocene is the name of the geological age in which we are currently living. It is so named because it is the age in which the impact of humankind is evident on the natural environment. If it is a song about climate change, then Cave has gone about it in a typically oblique way, for he is not much given to making political statements in song, unless you think Stagger Lee is about gun control.
The wonder, however, is not that Nick was singing a political song, but that he was singing at all. Like many people, I doubted that we would see Nick back on stage after the tragic death of his son in 2015. Or if we did it wouldn’t be quite so soon.
But not only is he back on tour, there is a new album, Skeleton Tree, on the back of a feature documentary, One More Time With Feeling. It seems his famous work ethic is helping him in his grief.
The accepted narrative of 2016 is that it was a year of disaster and tragedy. Musically we had the deaths of Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael plus the release of a new Keith Urban album. In sport, Jarryd Roughead missed the AFL season while he underwent treatment for cancer and Hawthorn didn’t win the premiership, while politically we had Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Despite these dark portents, there are a few green shoots of hope emerging for 2017; Jarryd Roughead will take his place back on the Hawthorn forward line and Nick Cave is back on stage.
Nick was delivering his cautionary tale perched on a stool in the regional Victorian city of Ballarat, while behind him, the Bad Seeds bent over their instruments to create the surreal sonic backdrop to the song.
In a way it was an appropriate song to open his Ballarat show, for the Climate Council’s most recent report states that rural and regional communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, through both the incidence of extreme weather events, such as bushfire and drought, and through its impact on agriculture and agribusiness. Standing on dead grass under 35 degree heat with not so much as a waft of breeze, we could well believe it.
Sit Down and Be Counted
As the scene of the Eureka stockade in 1854 – the only armed uprising in Australian history (unless you count Cronulla beach in 2005 or the Apex gang’s Moomba brawl in 2016) – Ballarat is regarded as the birthplace of Australian democracy and is synonymous with the Australian spirit of rebellion and sticking it to the man. Not to mention a world renowned begonia festival.
It is also the hometown of long-time Bad Seed and Cave’s right hand man, Warren Ellis, and not too far from Cave’s own hometown of Warracknabeal. As such it was entirely appropriate that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds should take the stage as part of Ballarat Summer Sounds series of concerts, even if their slow, minor key dirges and sombre songs are hardly the stuff of sunny day soundtracks or poolside playlists.
That being said, Cave usually tours over summer to coincide with his visits home for Christmas. So we’re quite accustomed to seeing him on balmy nights, although this night was not so much balmy as it was boiling.
With his unflinching music and his refusal to censor himself or play the usual music industry game, Cave epitomises the very spirit of rebellion that the Eureka uprising represents. And the set up in Ballarat Botanical Gardens, a fenced off field with makeshift barriers and heavy security was not unlike a stockade. That is where any similarity ends however, for unlike the miners of the rebellion living in filth and mud with diminishing supplies and fingers of rum, the majority of patrons here were lounging about on picnic rugs and low slung chairs feasting on pre-ordered hampers and washing it down with a cheeky local pinot. The spirit of rebellion, you had to say, was not particularly evident.
It was a weird set-up. In front of the stage was a smallish field of dead grass and dust. The field was flat with no incline, but there were a few banks of bleaches set up to the back and the side. Those wishing to spread out picnic rugs and sit down were confined to the back half of the field, behind the mixing desk tower – a sort of fortress like tower in the centre.
The front half of the field directly in front of the stage was reserved for those willing to forego the comforts of the picnic rug and stand for a few hours. I was there with Ralph, Nina and Judy. We had a picnic rug, but there was no space left to spread it by the time we arrived, so we moved into the standing area, where the stage structure at least provided some shade.
Despite the fact that the temperature was edging over 35 degrees Celsius, the security team stringently enforced the ‘standing’ rule, forcing to their feet anyone who even momentarily sat down in the dirt. Ralph noted security personnel pushing past people in the act of rolling joints to force sitters back to their feet. The message was clear – illegal drugs were fine, but comfort was not. Ballarat may have been the seat of Australian democracy, but there was to be no sitting down. Possibly there was a sound reason for this rule, but you wonder what Peter Lalor and the rebel miners would have thought of such a prosaic edict.
The requirement to stand for hours in the heat might not have been so arduous had there been a musical distraction, but support act, The Necks, came on a good 30 minutes after their scheduled start time. I hadn’t previously seen The Necks, and all I knew about them was that they were a minimalist instrumental jazz trio. Ralph was a fan though, so I was looking forward to hearing them. They took up their respective positions with Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on double bass and Tony Buck on drums and percussion.
They played one extended piece that began with Abrahams’ slow tinkling piano and gradually built with the addition of bass – played by in turn by hand and bow – and Buck’s deft drumming and percussive fills. The piece swelled like a wave forming slowly in the deep until it broke in a majestic crescendo. I couldn’t say whether it was a new piece, old piece or something they made up as they went along, but it was musically interesting and diverting without being overbearing.
My mum and dad used to have nothing but praise for my English teacher Mr Spratt; not necessarily because of his teaching, although he was good, but because he always wore a suit and in their words, ‘looked smart and professional.’
The same could be said for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, for no matter that their music bristles with bombast and brimstone or that they evoke a sort of demonic debauchery, they at least they always dress formally for work and look smart and professional. Even in Ballarat’s stifling heat, the Bad Seeds were dressed in dark sombre suits. If it wasn’t for their unkempt hairstyles and their various histories of substance abuse, you might have mistaken them for investment bankers at a networking function.
Always a moveable feast, there were seven Bad Seeds on this tour; Warren Ellis, Martyn P Casey, Thomas Wylder, Jim Sclavunos, Conway Savage, George Vjestica and Toby Dammit.
They were arrayed on stage behind Cave, like so many crows on a telegraph line. They followed Anthrocene with intense moody readings of two further songs form Skeleton Tree, Jesus Alone and Magneto. The music thrummed ominously with rippling restraint as Nick kicked back his stool and prowled the lip of the stage, reciting his grim tales of dystopian melodrama. His vocal was prominent in the mix and rang out loud and clear across Lake Windouree and the surrounding countryside.
The band gradually amped up the momentum and distortion with Higgs Boson Blues, during which Cave leaned out into the audience, supported by their arms, and goaded people to feel his heartbeat – ‘can you feel my heartbeat?’ We weren’t quite close enough to reach the benighted breast, but we could feel his aura, or was that just the smell of weed and the crush of people bearing down on us?
“I wanna tell you ’bout a girl…” snarled Cave and Conway Savage bashed out the dissonant keyboard motif of From Her to Eternity. It was a signal that the preliminaries were over and it was time for the band to let loose a little. Tupelo followed with Martyn P Casey, fresh from his tour with The Triffids, thumbing out the song’s familiar bass riff – except that it seemed slightly altered, there seemed to be one fewer note in the sequence. Perhaps he was conserving energy in the heat.
Tupelo was followed by Jubilee Street, a song that has quickly become the barometer of a good Bad Seeds gig. In the early days it was Saint Huck in which the band truly clicked, and then for many years The Mercy Seat became the litmus test of the show. The baton has now been passed on to Jubilee Street, which builds and builds, both musically and in its lyrical narrative until it explodes in a maelstrom of hyper-distortion and confession.
Cave sat at a grand piano for a slightly jaunty version of The Ship Song – not quite a shanty, but it was certainly quicker in tempo than the original. Into My Arms became a mass sing-a-long that in the context of the death of Nick’s son, took on a new layer of poignancy. I certainly teared up and even Nick seemed touched by the effect of the swelling choral accompaniment the crowd provided, simply saying at the song’s conclusion, ‘Oh Ballarat.’ Contributing to the emotion was the woman behind me, who sang along in the most beautiful voice. I had to turn around half way through to check if it was Adele.
Nick highlighted that Ballarat was Warren Ellis’ hometown and spoke at length about the tour of the city Warren had conducted the previous day, visiting the school he attended then having dinner at the local fish and chip shop. It seemed an unlikely tale, but Cave kept the levity going by suggesting there should be some sort of shrine to Ellis in town, with a merchandise stand selling fake beards and hearts of gold.
Red Right Hand was introduced as a ‘song for the times’, which may have been a reference to Brexit, Donald Trump’s impending inauguration (and his reportedly tiny hands) or just a comment on the type of people you might run into in Ballarat. It was difficult to pinpoint the exact reference however, because Cave forgot the words. Musically it began quietly and slowly, but then erupted in a controlled cacophony, so loud that any remaining gold in the region might have been jarred loose.
In Distant Skies, soprano Else Torp appeared in a ghostly, spectral presence on a giant screen to sing her part of the duet. It was a little disconcerting to have the backing vocalist Skyping in, but I admired the precision this forced on the band. I did wonder why they didn’t get in a guest soprano for the tour, or even the girl behind me who had sung along so beautifully to In My Arms. And had they considered a hologram a la Tupac? The song concluded with a beautiful, lyrical violin solo by Ellis.
The band ended the set with Skeleton Tree, the title track from their latest album. The song’s closing refrain, ‘and it’s alright now,’ carried an air of melancholy and resigned acceptance rather than celebration. But that’s not necessarily how we saw it in the moment, with most of the audience erupting in cheers and whoops as Nick waved and exited, leaving the band to finish the song.
They re-emerged for an encore and opened with Nobody’s Baby Now, supposedly requested by a girl they had met in the fish and chip shop the previous night. It was refreshing to hear an unexpected album cut from 20 odd years previous, but it was even more welcoming when Casey commenced the lead-in riff to the demented psycho-tale of Stagger Lee.
After a quick swipe at the local authorities for their curfew, (or alernatively, the band could simply have started on time – just sayin’) they concluded the show with the calming, almost elegiac Push the Sky Away.
I didn’t mind so much about the curfew, for I had a 90-minute drive back to Melbourne ahead of me, followed by work the next day. But whatever weariness I felt the next day was worth it, and in any case, was compensated by the sense of exhilaration and excitement that I always feel when I see Nick Cave perform.
“It’s good to be playing again” Nick Cave said towards the end of the show, a sentiment with which we could only concur.
Higgs Boson Blues
From Her to Eternity
The Ship Song
Into My Arms
Girl in Amber
I Need You
Red Right Hand
The Mercy Seat
Nobody’s Baby Now
Push the Sky Away