Taking new album Skeleton Tree on a global tour must be one of the greatest challenges in Nick Cave’s life. The 59-year-old released his sixteenth album with The Bad Seeds last September, by far the most heartbreaking, traumatic release of his prolific career.
The album was released alongside a film, One More Time With Feeling, which included recorded in-studio performances of all eight songs. It was the perfect way to put these songs on show; The deeply private music did not require a response for it to be heard. These songs are for Nick Cave first. Then, and only then, were they for others.
To have to take the show on the road was undoubtedly punishing; equally difficult was to plan it in a way that completely the slightest hint of pity party. It’s clear, now, that Cave can masterfully tap into the two-way street that forms the emotional stronghold of his performance, using it as a personal catharsis, a super-sized group therapy. And this weekend he revisited his hometown state for two such sessions at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
The concert began with poignantly, soberly, on the rumbling Anthrocene; its dramatic tones immediately commanded silence and attention from the crowd. As the sun quickly faded and the moon illuminated the sky above the open-air venue, the atmosphere played out across Jesus Alone and Magneto, crushing and deliberate.
Cave’s storied discography revels in its eclecticism, but even the most removed sounds inhabit a single universe connecting it all. Shifting into the raunchy howls of Higgs Boson Blues felt like the most natural transition ever, as did the shift to the immense, intense From Her To Eternity from his 1984 debut of the same name, the gentle Tupelo, and so on.
Cave had no intention of forcing the crowd into mournful solemnity the entire time. Throughout, he interacted directly, hilariously, callously, irreverently, making jokes to and about those in the front rows.
He would connect physically too, leaning right into the crowd itself, nearly sinking into swathes of adoring, devoted disciples. He teetered right above them, almost fully engulfed by grabby outstretched limbs. He held their hands, stared into their eyes. He would single someone out and sing to them and them alone. He allowed the crowd to touch him, to tug at his clothes. At one point he even reached in for a kiss.
It’s extremely rare that an artist can connect so personally with a crowd, but Cave is no ordinary performer. It truly felt like he was there to sing to you, to share his stories – and at times, his heartbreak – with you personally.
Some moments, particularly Higgs Boson Blues and Red Right Hand were wild, manic cacophonies of noise and discord and movement. Others, like Jubilee Street and Into My Arms (for which he asked the happily obliging crowd to sing along) were touching and sentimental. Of course, songs from Skeleton Tree provided the set with its most powerful moments. Girl in Amber, I Need You and Distant Sky provoked tangible emotional shifts; many made no secret of their tears flowing freely. There is a beauty and devastation in his pained howls, the physical form of his tremendous heartbreak, soaring out beyond the crowd and into the night skies.
Cave possesses an immaculate skill for puppeteering emotion. With the tiniest flick of a proverbial baton, he conducts an atmospheric shift from crestfallen heartbreak to discordant ruckus, to outright hilarity, and back again. That it all occurs with equal meaning and sincerity is what makes him such a masterful artist and live performer.
He danced, too; his lanky frame would twist and jerk like a gawky, possessed spider. When he sang to the far corners of the crowd, his silhouette cast a monstrous shadow that towered above his adoring fans. His moves were often echoed by those of Warren Ellis, his wild-eyed, violin-assaulting right hand man, every bit as engaging to watch.
The night was poignant, powerful, beautiful, loud, funny and sad, often at once. This is clearly a part of his grieving process; Cave needs his audience, much as we need him. To share, to listen, to connect. We’re lucky to be invited to his group therapy. He needs us, and we need him.