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Sharp dressed man

Nick Cave sounds as good as ever

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Following the sad passing of the Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts last year, Nick Cave is perhaps the best tailored man in rock n’ roll. With his sixty-fifth birthday on the horizon, the Australian singer-songwriter is fast approaching the age when even Tom Jones stopped dying his hair. For the time being, however, Cave remains committed to the signature jet black aesthetic with which he made his name as a manic drug-addled performer in the early 1980s. The cult-like devotion of Cave’s fan-base (Kylie Minogue received death threats when they collaborated on “Where the Wild Roses Grow” for the 1996 Murder Ballads album) is, on the surface, a world away from the Welsh medallion man’s female admirers chucking their knickers at the stage. Cave has, nevertheless, been known to cite Jones as an influence on a suave but sweaty stage routine that seamlessly switches from the secular to the profane. 

With his band of brothers (and sisters) The Bad Seeds in tow, Cave, the gothic preacher, is playing to the biggest crowds of his career. The last date on their current European tour was a not-quite-sold-out crowd-pleasing Springsteen-esque marathon headline set at the All Points East Festival in London’s Victoria Park on Sunday, 28 August. Their opening salvo drew heavily from the 2004 double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, whose keynote songs are an ideal showcase for the legendary backing band, this time with gospel singers in tow. A cover of T’Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” was a surprise highlight of Cave’s more understated post-pandemic tour with Warren Ellis. “Get Ready for Love”, The Bad Seed’s opening number, foreground the fore glam cadences often lurking behind their stadium stomp. The lyrics to fan favourite “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” mark the first (and probably last) time Spanish mystic San Juan de la Cruz will be compared to Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls’ mythical guitarist who died a drug addict in 1991 at just 38

He gave up drugs and embraced an almost office-like working routine

At the height of Cave’s addiction to heroin in the 1980s and early-mid 1990s, bookies wouldn’t have given good odds on his surviving let alone becoming one of rock’s most dependable elder statesmen. Work has always been central to his physical and psychological survival, offering him a high to rival any pharmaceutical product. After his headmaster father died in a car-crash, confrontation and consolation were channelled through cathartic and sometimes violent performances with feral punk band, The Birthday Party. Drugs never got in the way of a constant flow of albums from The Bad Seeds, the band Cave created in 1983 alongside fellow-Australian Mick Harvey and the German-born Blixa Bargeld. The 1988 release of their first bona-fide masterpiece, “The Mercy Seat” — a song about a man awaiting execution, later covered by the original man in black, Johnny Cash — was followed by the publication of debut novel, the Faulkner-esqe And the Ass Saw the Angel the year afterwards.

That Cave might be here to stay became a more realistic proposition in the late-1990s as he gave up drugs and embraced an almost office-like working routine. That a publicly-admitted fondness for singing about dead women led to the best-selling album of his career, Murder Ballads, does not necessarily speak well of Cave or wider society. He is a sacred cow as beloved of middle-aged Guardian readers as twenty-something Shoreditch hipsters. When listening to songs such as “No Pussy Blues”, right-on audiences and commentators adopt the kind of selective hearing usually reserved for purveyors of reggae and hip-hop. Piano-based, The Boatman’s Call (1997) constituted a career-best album that paved the way for solo performances in venues more accustomed to hosting classical performers. Cave was invited alongside luminaries of the literary world (and, well, Bono) to provide an introduction to small-format books from the King James Bible in 1999. Some of his recorded output from the following decade seemed to be treading water, but Push the Sky Away (2013) marked a return to form. The death of Cave’s teenage son Arthur in 2015 inspired the minimalist pearls of Skeleton Tree, featuring electronic arrangements which began to dispense with traditional verse-chorus structures. This aesthetic was further developed in 2019’s Ghosteen. Awful cover art aside, few artists record such critically acclaimed albums so late in their career.

The Bad Seeds were due to hit the road in 2020, but were forced into hiatus by Covid-19. Cave didn’t sit idle. He recorded and toured the Carnage album with Bad Seed Warren Ellis. Just as he was revving up to return to the big time, tragedy hit again. Cave’s eldest son, thirty-one-year-old Jethro, a model who had been convicted of assaulting his mother, was found dead. The show must go. Cave was on feel-good form and entertained audiences with as close to a greatest hits tour as a star whose fame has never relied on the singles charts can lay claim. Five-star reviews were the norm for concerts as righteous as they were riotous. Acolytes heralded the performances as constituting something close to a religious experience.

Physical decline was unusually muted for a performer of his vintage

Beware the worship of false idols. Cave isn’t the messiah, although he and The Bad Seeds do put on a hell of a good show. The performance I witnessed wasn’t perfect, but it was as close to perfection as an outside festival headline set beginning in daylight can realistically hope for. Cave’s fearlessness at reaching out and being touched by his audience is a welcome antidote to ever-expanding security barriers at increasingly corporate events (full disclosure, I unsuccessfully requested press access to the VIP viewing stand, but it is not just sour grapes that leads me to say I was glad to be down by the barrier, whilst occasionally sneaking out to the posh toilets and quiet bar in the media area where many critics remained firmly entrenched). There was the occasional slip in the depth and range of Cave’s voice (most noticeably in the opening numbers), but any physical decline was unusually muted for a performer of his vintage. Signature tunes such as “Red Right Hand” (now better known than it was on its original 1994 release due to its inclusion on the Peaky Blinders soundtrack) were generally kept in the original key albeit employing subtle rearrangements and audience call-and-response routines used to bypass some of the more challenging parts.

If a criticism were to be levelled against what, by any standards, was a triumphant show, it would be that it was too slick. The exact reasons for Mick Harvey’s departure from The Bad Seeds in 2009 remain unknown, but Cave’s oldest musical collaborator did voice frustration at the concessions required from playing to increasingly large crowds. Violinist Ellis, a whirlwind of hair and charisma, has since become Nick’s right-hand man, playing Steve Van Zandt to Cave’s Springsteen. The mischievous pair’s carefully choreographed displays of camaraderie are the stuff of seasoned pros. For those attending multiple shows, much of their appeal resides in pre-empting knock out punchlines. As The Bad Seeds launched into a surprise impromptu encore of an unusually uplifting ditty about infertility, “The Weeping Song”, it was nigh on impossible not to be bowled over by the hardest working man in show business. 

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