If the Rolling Stones were once the satanic majesties brooding over the dark side of rock n roll in their regency pomp and are currently a rejuvenated and brilliant show band the spotlight of true darkness has been occupied by another surly crew of elder statesman.
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds take to the main stage stage like a flock of windswept crows, black and oily and cackling in the early evening sun. They are second on the bill which is quite an achievement for a band who have no understanding of terms like compromise but an interesting command of the high drama of cordite showbusiness to combine with their genuinely foul and brilliant creativity.
Cave himself looks resplendent in sharp black suit and two tone patterned shirt with matching hanky and has a bizarre seventies retro watch clamped to his skinny wrist. He looks surly but can’t resist a smile as the occasion suddenly hits him as he walks purposely across the stage.
It’s a mighty long way down rock n roll from those Birthday Party gigs decades ago when the madness and mayhem and the self destructive hate filled music collided with itself and the audience in a bubonic and brilliant couple of years of narcotic mayhem. The very idea that then psychotic singer would almost be respectable all those years later would have been laughable but here he is with that band of crazies who look like wild west outlaws who have been dragged out of some sepia tone gunslinger shot from the dusty frontier.
The set kicks off with We No Who U Are, the predicative text titled song from the truly great recent number one album. Typically of the new songs its deceptive in its stripped down dark beauty. It’s like they got their ya ya’s out with the smoldering intensity of Grinderman but have lost none of the intensity in the current songs that combine classic songwriting with that melancholic and staring death in the eye power of all the great older artists.
The song is an interesting and supremely confident way to play a huge festival slot. This is no wam bam grab your spam kick ass set intro but a slow fuse that burns beautifully and sets the tone- a tone so apart from everything else on the main arena that it underlines the pure confidence of the band.
They then play Jubilee Street which builds on that addictive guitar line that coils like smoke in the nocturnal nicotine haze as Cave intones the lyrics, which are part dark and part dryly humorous. The band seethe behind him in slow motion- each member playing out his role to perfection
There is the great Barry Adamson- looking impeccably cool on percussion and utility instruments, Conway Savage looking like a Deputy Dawg sheriff and Warren Ellis looking, well, totally insane with his violin bow shoved in the back of his jacket like he has been hit in the neck by an injun in some high plains drama. Drummer Jim Sclavunos is one of the great drummers out there- dealing out the clever rhythms from neo Bossa Nova to modern blues to jazz tinged swings and powerfully brutal attacks.
Cave himself is the preacher man and puts in a riveting performance. His hair seems to get darker and darker over the years and hangs like pitch black curtains over his pixie from hell face and demonic staring eyes as he glares at the audience and brings down the spiritual smolder to everything he sings.
As Jubilee Street enjoys its groove and hypnotizes you with its coiling guitar line you are suddenly startled back to life with a sudden crank in volume- a sudden wall of sound like the end of the walls of Jericho as the band hit the Richter scale and Cave pounds the piano- it’s a simple trick but stunningly effective and you can feel the rush of emotion from the band and from your own internal reservoirs of feelings that rushes up your spine and the sudden surge in danger as the band show that they may have stripped this stuff down but if they feel like it that feral, dark danger of the Birthday Party is there just inside their well tailored sleeves.
They keep the mood with the next song, From Her To Eternity. It sounds wonderful with that incessant, powerful, almost one note crank of piano and the rolling thunder toms as Cave moves off the stage and towards the audience in full preacher mode with his arms splayed and seeking the heavens.
He climbs onto the barrier at the front and his well polished shoes somehow hook him onto the narrow fence top. He leans into the crowd like that classic Iggy shot from the Stooges days and then straddles a woman fan at the front with ‘Nick Cave’ felt tipped across her face. The audience is laughing as her face is caught in a part startled and part ecstatic moment as the Caveman shoves his groin at her head. It’s all very rock n roll and tongue in cheek dangerous but doesn’t detract from the hell blues of the song. This is powerful stuff and a total contrast to the real hell of the headliners Mumford And Sons, whose mundane fans are already arriving with their satchels and prim and proper music tastes early enough to be assaulted by the brooding metallic KO of the band at the top of their game on stage right now.
Enough of this filthy stuff! the band switch to Deanna which is as close to pop as they ever get, with its singalong lines and almost Dave Clarke Five classic Britbeat shuffle. Of course it’s scoured and scored by some impressive and impassioned intoning from Cave who has now found his way back onto the stage after getting lost in the audience at the front and losing track of the set list. ‘I came here for you soul…’ he sings at the Glastonbury crowd in stark contrast to all the wishy washy talk of good vibes and flowers in the hair nicey niceness of the skipping passer by in the dusty temporary high street of Glastocity.
Jack The Ripper continues this desperate foulness and then Tupelo, another song from the early archives and another surprise choice in the context of the new album set, hangs heavy in the air with its brooding romance and filmic 3D mood. It sounds like some kinda western theme tune played by balladeers from hell as Cave delivers the lyric about Elvis and long lost twin and the mythical deep south, mixing and mashing biblical imagery and the terror at the heart of the American dream..and that’s just the first verse- phew.
Where do you turn after these heavy duty barn stormers creating an electric storm of filth and fury actually near a barn? You strip it down to plaintive piano and vocal for the truthful and tearful People Ain’t No Good which is starkly searching and where the big themes like the creator are dealt with in a song that seeks salvation and hope amongst the chaos and turmoil in life- this is oddly a quiet corner for a meditative song- you can hear a pin drop as Cave’s face fills the giant screen and his fascinating features fill up with the deep personal quest of the song- a personal plea played out in the middle of the psychodrama of a Bad Seeds set.
The Mercy Seat is one of the drop dead Bad Seed classics, it’s slightly lessened by starting on the acoustic guitar but still effective by its growing menace and terror as the electric chair beckons for the imagined murderer sat on death row, fingernails chewed to the bone and god and the devil beckoning him to his final moment, Cave really inhabits these songs, going from author to actor to becoming the victim of the piece.
The band’s cover of the traditional Stager Lee is another exercise in smoking cool- that slinky bass line, that sense of dynamic, those themes of sex death and murder, this is ten minutes of control and cool combined with a cordite whiff of danger as Cave again climbs down to the front of the stage and is caught in a trance with a pretty girl in white who is sat on her friend’s shoulders.
Time freezes for the girl who doesn’t know where to turn and it’s a strange and intimate kinda moment of rock n roll shared with 20 000 people on the big screen. She sits their frozen like a rabbit in headlights and then does the dance, the dance of the powerful intoxicant of lust with her yearning eyes with the Cave as the preacher man holds her arm with the contradictions running through his electricity like a modern day fire breathing bible basher with love in his eyes and god in his heart. They should use a still of these images for an album cover. Priceless.
Red Right Hand has a slinky cool which makes it a firm favorite in the Cave canyon, the devilish lounge tune with its smokey atmosphere and its red velvet edge. It’s a great song to climax with and one that has become a staple of the Cave set over the years.
Of course the gig is a classic and is the true climax of the Sunday at Glastonbury. The headliners who are up next are Mumford and Sons but their polite frolicking can be no match for this infernal intensity and they may draw more people to see them but they will be the true anti climax to the festival as Nick Cave steals the show.,