The moment Nick Cave walks onto the Manchester Arena stage, before a note of music is played, a gruff male voice from the crowd bellows “I LOVE YOU!” The singer nods. “I’m glad we’ve got that sorted out,” he mutters.
Thirty-four years into their career, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are a band that inspire a certain kind of undying devotion among their fans: perhaps uniquely among his peers, Cave recently became the antihero of a phantasmagoric graphic novel, Reinhard Kleist’s Mercy On Me.
Nevertheless, even the most devoted might be forgiven for approaching their current tour with a certain degree of trepidation. On the face of it, it looks like a spectacular mismatch. After four decades, they find themselves playing the Sheds, as the music industry colloquially refers to Britain’s arena-sized venues. It’s testament to how popular an uncompromising artist can eventually become if they’re as good at what they do as Nick Cave is, but seems an unlikely fit given their recent musical history.
A huge chunk of the set list is derived from their last album, Skeleton Tree, a remarkable and potent work even by their standards, but one that seems almost singularly unsuited to ringing out around the kind of vast venues that usually play host to stadium rock bands, production-heavy pop extravaganzas and indeed the deathless hilarity of funnyman Michael McIntyre.
The issue isn’t so much the devastating emotional tenor of an album recorded in the wake of Cave’s son’s death, although the fact that listening to Skeleton Tree frequently feels uncomfortably like intruding on someone’s grief is hard to get away from – “I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came, not some sort of empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk out feeling like shit,” Cave recently told the Guardian.
It’s more the actual sound of the album: as abstract and unruly in its own way as anything Cave’s old mob The Birthday Party came up with, a mass of electronic loops, ragged vocals, rhythms that clatter out of time with the rest of the track, songs that keep vanishing beneath grinding noise. It’s about as far removed from the kind of music built to rouse arena audiences as it’s possible to get: opening the set with a salvo of three Skeleton Tree tracks – the first, Anthrocene, the most abstract and unruly of the lot – seems an undertaking that in theory is either extremely brave or suicidal.
But there was something else Cave said in the same interview, about songs taking on a life of their own: “Songs are strange things … they’re patient, and wait for the meaning, and the meaning changes through the years.”
And so it proves tonight. While the lyrics of Red Right Hand are subtly updated – the murderous protagonist now sends “angry little tweets” – Anthrocene and the other tracks from Skeleton Tree appear stripped back and tightened up, with most of the short-circuiting sonic turmoil removed to reveal something beautiful and stately, not a million miles removed from the beautifully drawn ballads Cave and the Bad Seeds pluck from their back catalogue on stage.
You can draw a direct line between the heartbreakingly beautiful Girl in Amber and The Ship Song or Into My Arms. They reserve a sense of barely contained chaos for the earliest songs they perform, 1984’s From Her to Eternity and the following year’s Tupelo: tonight, both are genuinely awe-inspiring exercises in explosive, tumultuous fury.
The Bad Seeds sound fantastic – it’s hard to think of another band that can shift so seamlessly from elegance and control to white-knuckled bedlam. Cave himself, meanwhile, remains as magnetic an onstage presence as ever. He starts the gig seated, but quickly repairs to a barrier at the front of the stage, balanced precariously in front of the crowd, gripping the front row’s hands for support as he sings, breaking off from a particularly coruscating version of From Her to Eternity to thank an audience member for passing him a tissue: “That’s incredibly considerate of you.”
At one point, he starts beckoning the audience forward, and the entire standing area of the venue starts moving towards him. When it comes to the encore, he removes his sock and hands it to a fan he earlier admonished for taking photographs of his ankles, then begins plucking out people from the crowd until the stage is filled with fans, among them a child who looks about 10 and, a little disturbingly, appears to have a word-perfect knowledge of The Bad Seeds’ spectacularly foul-mouthed reimagining of the 100-year-old American folk song Stagger Lee.
It’s a joyous and unexpected finale to a joyous and unexpectedly triumphant gig.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010