O2 Arena – 20th September

Over the past four decades, Nick Cave has journeyed from outsider to cult hero, and again from cult hero to one of the all-time greats. But 2017 signals another landmark in Cave’s career, because now he’s officially arena-level huge. Of course, you could argue that he and The Bad Seeds were capable of packing out the O2 with previous records, but realistically it’s the successes of his docu-films (2014’s surreal, innovative 20,000 Days On Earth and last year’s incredibly moving Once More With Feeling) that will have widened his audience further.

The venue upgrade isn’t without controversy. Long-time fans have been vocal in their concerns that the scale of the venue will thwart audience interaction, thereby stifling Cave’s visceral performance style. Perhaps more pertinently, many aren’t sold on the idea of hearing the raw and brutally-painful songs on Skeleton Tree performed in a venue as impersonal as the O2. As a result, some fans have stayed away entirely. They needn’t have worried because tonight, Cave and The Bad Seeds are as powerful performing before 20,000 people as they would be performing before 20.

As ever, Cave is a magnetic presence, whether prowling the stage or hunched over the barriers, his slim frame frantically pawed at by the front few rows. During the climax of ‘Higgs Bosom Blues’ the monochrome video screens either side of the stage convey him clasping an audience member’s hand to his chest as he growls, “Can you feel my heartbeat? It goes boom, boom, boom.” Cave then bellows, “I want to tell you about a girl…” into the crowd, and dashes to his piano to hammer out the horror film riff from ‘From Her To Eternity’. It’s a fantastically aggressive rendition, accentuated by sinister xylophone and blood-curdling howls.

It’s not especially surprising that the fire and brimstone of ‘From Her To Eternity’, ‘The Mercy Seat’ and ‘Red Right Hand’ suit an arena-setting, nor the tenderness of ‘Into My Arms’ – which is transformed into a lighters-aloft singalong – and ‘The Ship Song’, which finds Cave at the piano, bathed in mottled lilac light. It is, however, a real relief to hear the deeply-personal songs from Skeleton Tree soar.

Warren Ellis’ gorgeous, tremulous violin-playing lifts ‘Distant Sky’ to the heavens and ‘Girl In Amber’ is haunting, led by Ellis on piano, and accompanied by slow motion film of Cave’s wife Susi walking away from the camera on Brighton Beach, towards the burnt-out shell of the West Pier. ‘I Need You’ is utterly devastating thanks to Cave’s ragged, grief-stricken vocals, which he drags along, just out of step with the main melody. The song culminates in Cave entreating the audience, “Just breathe, just breathe.”

For all the heaviness tonight, there’s a lot of light, thanks to the collective feeling of catharsis and Cave’s quips and audience interactions. “My wife is a fox?” he responds to a heckle, mid-set. “She’s not bad, right? Not bad for a little guy from Wangaratta…” He stands on the barriers at the side of the arena for the beginning of the encore, and encourages a hundred or so people to climb on stage for ‘The Weeping Song’ and ‘Stagger Lee’. During set finale ‘Push The Sky Away’, he instructs the stage invaders to sit, while he scales the hospitality seating, stumbling upon Bobby Gillespie who sings the song’s refrain. It’s a joyous ending to a show that has not only explored the full gamut of human emotion, but has also proved that Cave and the Bad Seeds are more than capable of entrancing arenas.

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