There are many sorts of gig.
Sometimes a gig’s in a small dingy bar, you’re all about three feet from the band, who is unknown and always will be because face it, they’re mediocre, and people in the front are taking bets on what deodorant (if any) the drummer uses. You’re having a good time partly because the bands are, and mostly because you’re drunk.
Sometimes you’re a notch higher, somewhere equally small but with ventilation and candles and organic ales and bands you have actually heard of, although this isn’t because they’re actually famous, it’s just because you spend way too much time reading music sites on the Internet. After the set, the band still steps off the foot-high stage, buys pints, and mingles with the crowd. I like these gigs. You get at least three bands for less than the price of an album, and you get to feel all indie until you make the mistake of trying to chat to the bands, at which point you make some horribly embarrassing remark and spend the rest of the evening alternately crippled and tickled by your own idiocy. (Okay, so the last bit of this may just be me.)
And then sometimes you see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Hammersmith Apollo.
I’ve been trying, since we saw him on Friday, to write something here that would do the show justice, that would be able to go beyond recitation of a setlist to actually evoking what it was like to be me, so overwhelmed by the power of The Mercy Seat that I was actually on the point of tears. Today I admit defeat – I can’t come up with the review I want to write, I can only churn out badly phrased, probably cliched stream-of-consciousness impressions of two songs amazingly performed, and tack on bits here and there about the rest. So here goes. It’s all a bit convoluted.
He started with Wonderful Life from the new album, sounding overwrought and a bit off-tune and I was suddenly worried I’d just wasted £23, sucked in by a Big Name who could no longer deliver. But then the next song was Red Right Hand, which started off almost playful and loungy, Nick almost whispering “He’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a ghost, he’s a guru” like a conspiratorial secret-sharing, the chorus section surprisingly sedate (I don’t remember even hearing the bell), which made it all the more climactic by the time he was spitting “You’re a microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his RED RIGHT HAND” with crashing bells, flashing red lights and pounding piano, and at that point I stopped worrying.
Then West Country Girl and a beautiful ballad I didn’t know, Hallelujah, Do You Love Me, Bring It On (a real clunker from the new album, and the low point of the gig for me), Henry Lee (which lost something in its conversion to stage rawk – snarling “La la la la la” just didn’t really work very well as compared to dueting liltingly with PJ Harvey on the album version), Still In Love With You, Watching Alice.
Then he sat down at the piano and started playing something that sounded like it would be a ballad, until he sang “It began when they come took me from my home and put me on Dead Row” and oh my God, it was The Mercy Seat, but dramatically slowed down and every word carrying a horror and power surpassing anything I ever felt listening to the record. Halfway through, the pace started to quicken, tension started to build, I sat transfixed on the edge of my seat as lights flashed, the tragedy unfolded, the violin screeched like a demented banshee (I really must go get a Dirty Three album, if that was Warren Ellis, he was fantastic), and always that voice, thundering in the middle of the storm: “And the mercy seat is waiting. And I think my head is burning.” But somewhere something’s got to give, eventually the condemned man’s spasms too must cease; we gradually returned to the slow ominous gloom of the piano, he sang the final chorus with its agonizing, infuriating last line, then black out, and I sat in the darkness with heart racing, a lump in my throat, and goose-pimples.
Another song I didn’t know. Then From Her To Eternity, Wild World, and they left the stage. We screamed, stamped, whistled and clapped for ages. They came back, played Into My Arms and Tupelo, and left. We screamed, stamped, whistled and clapped for ages. They came back and sang He Wants You and Deanna, and this time it was the last time, and as we left the venue I worried briefly that Califone at the Spitz (gig venue category: small, arty, candles etc.) this Friday would pale in comparison.
What I like most about Nick Cave on record was displayed in abundance seeing him live – his strong versatile voice capable of both punk shrieking and intimate balladeering. What I didn’t realize about the Bad Seeds on record came across blindingly clearly live – they’re a bloody fantastic band, and delivered every song with more depth and texture than I ever noticed on the record (this is incredibly rare in my opinion – most bands struggle just to sound as good as they do on record, and many fail to do even that).
This year has really been a gig goldmine for me, and this was another one to treasure.