Banal and profound, bent and beautiful: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis at Edinburgh Playhouse reviewed

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Edinburgh Playhouse, and touring Europe until 20 October

Nick Cave has always been drawn to parable and fable, but more than ever these days he is engaged in the necessary work of mining magic from the base metal of day-to-day existence. The key lines in this show came early, during ‘Bright Horses’: ‘We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are,’ Cave sang in that hollow, sorrowful baritone. ‘This world is plain to see/ It don’t mean we can’t believe in something.’

Cave’s recent songs have a terrible and powerful context: the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015. As an artist he has confronted this personal tragedy side on, acknowledging its profound impact without letting it overwhelm his writing. Through allusion and allegory, Cave has drawn on pain, confusion and grief to create work that feels true, transcendent and stirringly alive.

It has led to a transformative shift in the way he interacts with his audience. During the opening ‘Spinning Song’ he whispered repeatedly ‘I love you’, waving the sentiment to the four corners of the theatre. It was pure showbiz, yet also not. Cave is out here because he needs to be. Shaking off post-Covid ring-rust is one imperative — ‘We’re trying to learn how to be a band again,’ he told us — but the need for human connection felt raw and urgent, and moving to witness.

He is undertaking this tour with Warren Ellis, right-hand man in Cave’s longstanding band, the Bad Seeds. The pair were ably supported by multi-instrumentalist Johnny Hostile and three terrific backing vocalists. At times, when the latter’s soulful counterpoints combined with Cave’s quasi-religious fervour, it felt a little like Bob Dylan’s gospel-era output transported to a point far beyond mere salvation.

A long thin man wearing a good suit and a decent dye job, Cave held our focus as a raptor commands the attention of a field mouse. His physicality is all about the sharp extremities: knees buckled, elbows flapped, bony fingers waggled accusingly. When he raised his palms to the heavens and shoved the dry ice upward, I suddenly understood why he titled one record Push the Sky Away. To his left, rumpled and wise-looking, Ellis played the mystic foil with relish, conjuring all manner of sonic devilment from a tiny keyboard. When particularly riled up, he writhed in his chair like some dissident agent under interrogation in a Cold War TV drama.

Together they conjured up two hours of incantations and exorcisms within three distinct musical settings. They performed almost all of Carnage, the album they released earlier this year, alongside much of Ghosteen, the most recent Bad Seeds album, on which the music was also composed by Cave and Ellis.

These songs are strange beasts. The steadying hand of regulated rhythm has gradually leached from Cave’s music, leaving it to drift on a whirring bed of electronic loops, industrial creaks and buzzing bass notes. Over these ambient waves, Cave sung-spoke his ordinary tales of wonder. Individually, the unanchored pieces possess oodles of atmosphere and drama. Strung together in concert, their aural limitations began to flirt with monotony.

The palette was fleshed out with several piano songs; lullabies for the damned. Framed within a pentagram of golden light, Cave sang ‘Waiting For You’ and ‘I Need You’ with near unbearable intensity. Though no less lovely, ‘Balcony Man’ added both levity — ‘I put on my lap-dancing shoes’ —and deliverance: ‘This morning is amazing and so are you.’

At times, all this heart yearned for a more powerful pulse. It was a relief when Cave indulged his deranged preacher man persona and let loose a primal blues racket. ‘White Elephant’ was riddled with violence and profanity; at the end, when he bashed the keys and the vocal ensemble roared the repeated refrain, it felt like ‘Hey Jude’ sent straight to hell. ‘Hand of God’ was a howl of not-quite-pantomime menace, Cave jack-knifing along the stage apron.

So it went, the banal and profound, the bent and the beautiful. A cover of T. Rex’s ‘Cosmic Dancer’, burnished with Ellis’s violin, felt perfectly at home alongside a handful of older numbers. In the absence of P.J. Harvey, the song’s original co-vocalist, murder ballad ‘Henry Lee’ became a hypnotic two-hander with backing vocalist Janet Ramus. ‘Into My Arms’, played solo at the piano, was pure balm, but the churning ‘Leviathan’ spoke more meaningfully of Cave’s current practices. A nothing lyric, full of generic moans about ‘my baby’, somehow rose to a higher meaning through repetition, becoming finally a kind of blues koan. Such is the power of Cave’s weird alchemy. It makes you see things that aren’t there.

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