Wednesday, October 30, 2013

End of the Pier Show

Earlier this year, when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds announced their autumn tour dates, I was relieved that they were not playing the awful Brighton Centre, where I saw them on their last tour in 2008. But the absence of any date in Cave’s adopted home town meant that I was forced to get a ticket for one of their London performances – a regretful decision when they subsequently added a date at the Brighton Dome.

Standing in the bar at the Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday night, I worked out that the last time I had been there it was called the Hammersmith Odeon and it was to see Lou Reed. That was 34 years ago to the month and, in the light of Reed’s death last weekend, it would be easy to be sentimental; but that gig did not go well: prominent in the backing band was cowboy-hatted bassist Ellard “Moose” Boles and his millinery seemed to have influenced Reed’s readings of his classic songs that night. Us young punks, there to worship at the altar of the Velvet Underground, fled into the night at the mellow country arrangements. Lest we forget, though, the first Velvets album was recorded in 1966. Go and listen to it again: while they were recording ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’, Britain was listening to Dusty Springfield.

Things have not changed that much; in fact, they have probably got worse. While Cave and the Bad Seeds are admired enough to sell out three nights at Hammersmith, Miley Cyrus is popular enough to top the charts; and it is Cyrus’s body that Cave imagines floating in an LA swimming pool in one of six songs from this year’s nine-track album, Push the Sky Away. But it is not just a new album set: Cave leads the Bad Seeds through a set of hell and damnation, from his back catalogue, that is exhausting. As well as brooding perennials Tupelo, Stagger Lee and Red Right Hand¸ we get the darkness of The Mercy Seat and Jack the Ripper, and a screamingly intense version of From Her to Eternity that is the climax of the first half of the performance.

It would seem churlish to complain when Cave is putting so much energy in as the full southern gothic preacher: prowling the edge of the stage, by turns frightening – “You! With your fucking iphone!” – and flirting with the audience, he shimmies and prances like Trinity in The Matrix about to do Kung Fu. And Warren Ellis’s demented fiddler, slashing at his violin, hair and horsehair flailing, is almost a match. But it is something of a relief from the fire and brimstone when Cave sits at the piano and plays the sublime Love Letter, from No More Shall We Part, and the little heard Far From Me, from The Boatman’s Call. These are the only songs from these two gorgeous albums before the darkness returns - “here comes Lucifer with his canon law” - with Higgs Boson Blues.

After a five-song encore that includes one of the Bad Seeds rare floor-fillers, Deanna, Cave has played for two hours at a mostly frenetic pace. At 56, this might be the last time he gigs night after night with such verve and intensity and, perhaps signalling the way ahead, he returns to the piano for the final encore, a beautiful new ballad that could have come straight from the end of Brighton Pier, Give Us a Kiss.

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