Fairfield Halls, Croydon
photo by Jim Clear
Nick Cave’s personal songs of loss and bereavement took on a universal force and power after Covid and lockdown. A night of liberation.
“You’re very brave tonight,” says Nick Cave about the double vaccinated audience. “We’re trying to do two things, play some songs and not catch Covid.” It was correct that Cave mentioned this early on. For gig starved, ageing hipsters, the opportunity for live music was precious enough. The fact it involved Nick Cave with Warren Ellis, all the more so. And for Londoners, the trek out to the beautifully refurbished Fairfield Halls in Croydon only added to the excitement, to a real sense of occasion.
Before Nick Cave and Warren Ellis played a note, then, the huge expectations were at inverse proportions to this scaled back and austere performance. Of course, without the accompanying Bad Seeds, no one was expecting any thunder and heat to prevail. It was Cave in reflective ballad mode, with a no-frills presentation, but still pitched absolutely right. Cave played grand piano, whilst the hirsute Ellis looked hemmed in on a small stool fiddling with a tiny electronic keyboard. They made for a visually jarring odd couple.
Lockdown prevented audiences from hearing the most recent Bad Seeds album, Ghosteen, whilst the pair’s Covid isolation album, Carnage, continued with such spartan meditation. A Spinning Song, Bright Horses and Night Raid from Ghosteen set the sombre slow template up front. Noticing a few audience members depart an exit door, Cave jests “They didn’t last long! Oh no, he’s playing that Ghosteen shit!” It’s a revealing quip. Whilst extensively praised by the music monthlies and broadsheet journalists, for some Nick Cave fans the reviews felt a little rehearsed and the album underwhelming. Cave has clearly been listening in to the dissenters.
Tonight’s road test didn’t force us to dramatically re-evaluate the album. Compared to Cave’s extensive back catalogue, the demo-quality electronics and spoken-word lyrics doesn’t always connect. It’s not the lack of firepower that’s the problem, but the threadbare songs. Whereas Bad Seed shows triumph on a staggering level of consistency and ragged excitement, tonight it inevitably sagged. The hits went toe-to-toe with the misses. Tracks from Carnage were markedly alert and nimble sounding. The title track worked its spindly hooks and the boozy, rousing White Elephant snapped us out of any dimly lit fug.
We were also reminded of Ghosteen’s undoubted triumphs. Key tracks such as Galleon Ship and Waiting For You sounded alluring in a large hall. They were augmented deftly by a trio of gospel singers, including Cave’s long time backing voice, Wendi Rose, who furnished the minimalism with warmth and reverie. It was at the restrained end of gospel and they proved a non-showy but compelling presence. There was a brief dip into Skelton Tree, with the sumptuous and yearning I Need You, a gut punching highlight, all raw emotion and striking candour. By contrast, Higgs Boson Blues and elements of the say-what-you-see Balcony Man, a document of writing songs and shouting at passers-by in Brighton, provided a redoubt for Cave’s wit and levity.
Tonight’s encores still threw up surprises. In a night of deep cuts, hearing an ultimate Cave standard such as Into My Arms provided its own distinct rewards. Grinderman’s Palaces of Montezuma was the outlier inclusion, but by now we’d surrendered any qualms to tonight’s singular set list. Cave and Ellis’ sombre magic and the grieving impact of loss took on a universal dimension with Covid. Their determination to perform felt like the ultimate liberation from the inhumanity of lockdown, a bitter reminder of what has been lost for over a year. A jubilant mood prevailed, though, Cave bringing back to us what freedom looks and feels like.