Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Live at KOKO Camden, November 3rd
After Nick Cave’s trio of shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo last weekend, came an exclusive one-off show at historical Camden venue KOKO – a special event which was filmed in order to become a part of the artist’s forthcoming part-fictitious part-factual documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. Tickets for the show, which was announced early last month, were put up for sale only to a lucky bunch who’d won the chance to purchase them via an online ballot.
As one of the lucky – and infinitely delighted – fans, I made my way up to Camden, collected my wristband from the venue, had dinner in the Mexican restaurant next door – full of Bad Seeds fans, a most peculiar sight, and queued in the rain, ever so eager to secure a spot as close to the stage as possible. Being my first time at KOKO, I could really see why Cave would choose this particular venue for which to film a live show in: the theatrical atmosphere, the ceiling and walls adorned with deep reds and golds leading up to the several levels of balconies, match his characteristic storytelling aura. A beautiful selection of songs, ranging from Peggy Lee’s Fever to Swan’s Love Will Save You, kept the audience company as we waited for the man himself to come on stage. All so perfectly appropriate. I caught a glimpse of Nick Cave lurking behind a dark curtain to the right of the stage, peering out at a voracious crowd, clad in a shiny white-gold shirt underneath his black suit.
The lights dim as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds open the show with We No Who U R – the feeling is not dissimilar from putting on Push the Sky Away for the first time and listening to that first track, its intro notes so delicately powerful, Cave’s voice so suggestive… only, well, live, ergo so much more real. He looks out onto the crowd and points a long thin finger at us all: “We know who you are, And we know where you live, And we know there’s no need to forgive…” we all join in on the chorus. At the end of the song Nick Cave thanks us for coming and – “this is Jubilee Street”. Naturally, the audience is overjoyed, overexcited, jubilant, as the band dives into the song’s simple-yet-distinctive drum intro, followed by its compelling poetry: “On Jubilee Street there was a girl named Bee…”. Cave’s live version of the song is much heavier than the original recording, with the beat picking up pace on the third verse. Maybe too heavy, as I personally would prefer them to take it in the opposite direction, softer and more melodic, with all the emphasis on Warren Ellis’s sumptuous violin playing. Cave interacts with the front row audience, leaning out into the crowd, crying out the lyrics with fevorous passion. By the end of the song, on the words “I am transforming, I am vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying, LOOK AT ME NOW”, the music is an explosion of sound – immensly, immensely powerful. The style of this live version was impeccable and very much like the earlier Bad Seeds’, yet I undoubtedly favour the uplifting crescendo of the album’s Jubilee Street.
Stepping aside for a moment from Push the Sky Away, the sound of falling rain pours itself across the venue, carrying us back down to earth, blending in with the rain falling outside in the London night, and rolling into the throbbing bass of Tupelo. “Looka yonder… Looka yonder… Looka yonder… A big black cloud come!” and the drums beat claps of thunder as the lights flash. Tupelo will, in my opinion, always be one the Bad Seeds’ most powerful live songs, with its empowering tom drums and its chorus line of “Tupeloooo” making it a truly glorious piece of music. Nick Cave is as incredibly charismatic as ever, beaconing to the fans in the front rows: “Go to sleep little children”, and I’m thinking that if I were standing underneath the stage I probably would’ve died then and there. He strides across the stage, singing feverishly, and brings the song to an abrupt, striking end with “YOU WILL REAP JUST WHAT YOU SOW”.
…Sometimes, it crosses my mind that songs as powerful as Tupelo could do with a half-minute pause before the next song, a brief moment of silence in which one can recover almost… – why no, that’d be ridiculous. The Bad Seeds descend into the next track, the solitary bell chime of Red Right Hand basking in the redness of the venue and of the lights that flood the stage – such a suitable atmosphere for Nick Cave’s extraordinary storytelling. The music spills over the audience as he moves about theatrically, devilishly, ever so goddamned sexy.
More gentle – yet no less saucy – songs follow: a sublime Mermaids, with delicate poetry and buoyant notes, and Watching Alice, which can only be described as straight-up beautiful. Nick Cave introduces yet another track from Push the Sky Away: Higgs Boson Blues – which has to be my favourite from the album (not an instant favourite, as are Jubilee Street or We Real Cool, but one which grows on you over time, becoming more and more moving with every listen). The atmosphere is incredible: I close my eyes and feel as though the soft drums and guitar chords are keeping me suspended in thin air. Nick Cave craftily articulates the lyrics, putting passion into each and every syllable. “Can you feel my heart beat?” he asks over and over again until it is barely a whisper, sharing a seriously intimate moment with some lucky bastards in the front row. He lingers on those words, on those notes, and plunges into the final verse of strange and surreal poetry before exploding into the utterly hypnotising climax of the song. The way in which he sings the final line, “Can’t remember anything at all” is enough to bring anyone to tears.
Next comes a dark and heavy Hiding All Away and an even darker, even heavier, The Mercy Seat. The song starts off more mellow than the album version, and finishes all the more violently, charged with that same mesmerising energy as Tupelo. From bleak to bleakest, as the story of Stagger Lee unfolds, then suddenly back to the utmost delicacy with Push the Sky Away – in this case a live version unbearably more emotional than the album recording. The hauntingly beautiful etherealness of the song envelopes the venue and lures the audience into a state of ecstasy. “Some people say it’s just rock ‘n roll, oh but it gets you right down to your soul”, oh it really does. There are few musicians out there who can switch between such conflicting emotions quite as elegantly as Mr Cave. Here lies, in part, his extraordinary talent; the ability to capture with such perfection an infinite array of emotions, through an equally infinite array of words and sounds, and to be able to convey all this across a discography of twenty-odd albums.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds leave the stage, only to return with an encore which turns out to be quite the treat, to say the least. Here, an unexpected surprise as Cave returns accompanied by a radiant Kylie Minogue. The band abandons the darkness of the first part of the show to finish with a quartet of more romantic pieces, starting with a deeply touching Where the Wild Roses Grow – that relationship between Kylie’s extremely delicate and soft voice, and his, deep and husky.
Following in stark contrast, the chaotic and distressing intro of From Her to Eternity shatters across the room, introduced by that heart-breaking “I wanna tell you about a girl…” – for me, the absolute highlight of the night. With the film crew on the periphery of the stage and the evocative interior, I feel reminiscences of that scene in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, which happens to represent the precise circumstance in which I was first introduced to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. I’m still overwhelmed by the song’s energy, which fills the room and lingers in the air, when Nick Cave sits down at his piano and we recognise the chords of Into My Arms. Now this really is spoiling us. The overwhelming succession of songs gently breaks my heart and puts it back together again. Repeatedly. How one man can write this many truly moving and powerful pieces of music is beyond me. In those few split-seconds between verses and chorus, time seems to stand still. Not a single sound is heard as the audience stands in sacrosanct silence. No one dares breathe.
The show ends on a positively upbeat note with Deanna, a song which really is just destined to be played live, in front of an audience as excited and enthusiastic as this. It’s the perfect closure for what is one of the best set lists possible. There’s only one way in which the night could have been even more perfect, and that’s if P.J. Harvey had joined Nick Cave and together they’d have performed Henry Lee – but that’s pushing it a bit.
Once again, Nick Cave has proved his skill in putting together a mind-blowing show, which is also a perfect finishing touch to his new album, as well as a little “preview” of what’s to come in 20000 Days on Earth (the anticipation is killing me), and has proven just what a genius, what a bad motherfucker he is.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away tour continues: http://www.nickcave.com/live/