Her Majesty's Theatre, London
Simon Price on pop: The charge of Nick Cave's dark brigade
The Bad Seeds gallop through their new album in a show that effortlessly fuses drama and flashes of humour
Sunday 17 February 2013
Last seen, for a split second, in his prohibition flick Lawless, playing a dead man in a shot-up car, Nick Cave is doing a damn fine impression of a live one tonight.
Taking to the stage usually trod by the Phantom, under a gilded proscenium decorated with tumbling angels and writhing demons, he cuts an equally compelling figure in his tailored 1970s suit and open-to-the-sternum black silk shirt.
In full flight, leaping, twitching, kicking, dancing, declaiming and raging forward over the orchestra pit, his thickened and blackened hair lashing around his handsome features, he understands how to exploit his cadaverous physique as well as any danseur noble. For example, the moment when he flicks a tambourine in the air with his foot and catches it could have gone embarrassingly wrong, but this man knows what he's doing.
The first half of the show, however, is a more subdued affair. Performing the new album Push the Sky Away from start to finish is a bold move, but makes sense. It has what Cave describes as a "narrative surge", with its cast of hookers, child brides and (yes) mermaids, and its pervading atmosphere of incipient violence and barely restrained sexuality.
It's exquisitely delivered by a line-up that includes main collaborator Warren Ellis and core members Jim Sclavunos, Martyn P Casey and Conway Savage, augmented by fellow Antipodean Ed Kuepper, Visage man Barry Adamson, a choir of a dozen children and a string quintet.
If this audience doesn't yet know the material, there's appreciative laughter for some of the lyrics. Starting a song, for instance, with "She was a catch, we were a match, I was the match that would fire up her snatch". Or the line "I do driver alertness course, I do husband alertness course, I do mermaid alertness course" (a reference to the time he crashed his car into a bollard on the seafront).
But soon we're into the hits, Cave visibly becoming Über-Cave from the moment in the apocalyptic "From Her to Eternity" where he points a bony finger at the demons in the architecture. "Red Right Hand" is a spectacular spaghetti western chiller. "Your Funeral, My Trial" is a great late-night Nashville ballad, and "Deanna" is that rare thing from Cave: a straightforward goofy pop song, in which you're too busy dancing to worry about what is meant by "a winding cloth draws many moths around your Ku Klux furniture".
There are flashes of comedy. "Year after year, it [life] gets sadder ..." he begins, before turning to the choir with sudden mock-concern. "Don't listen to me, kids!" In Hove, it was: "This is a song which resonates with me deeply. Warren, which one is it?" He forgets the words to "Stagger Lee", as he did to "The Mercy Seat" two nights ago, but we get the gist: the titular character is so badass he takes the devil down. In anyone else's hands, it might be ridiculous. But, like I said, Nick Cave knows what he's doing.
If there's a more severely underestimated artist working today than Plan B (Brighton Centre, Brighton *****), I've yet to come across them. What Ben Drew is doing on the Grindhouse tour, which consists of a double bill of movie-driven narratives, is genuinely Brechtian: using avant-garde techniques (film, dance) and populist music to deliver a powerful social message directly to those who need it the most, i.e. the masses not the elite.
The Defamation of Strickland Banks and Ill Manors are both performed in full, amid real street lights, a defendant's box and, best of all, two 3D council blocks, with the vintage soul-pop of the former and the Wagnerian grime of the latter backed by excerpts from brilliantly bleak films. I'm not sure which moment is most impressive: a burning body tumbling acrobatically down a stairwell, or a jury solemnly breaking into fingerclicks without making you laugh.
The provocative, pro-chav, anti-Bullingdon title track of Ill Manors is so good Ben plays it twice, and each time feels exhilaratingly insurrectionary, making the whole place fizz like a box of firecrackers, and leaving you thrilling at the prospect of where Drew might take things next.
Filing out at the end, I realise I've never seen so many riot police attend a Brighton gig. Maybe someone is giving Plan B credit for the power of his work after all.
Best British Male BRIT nominee Richard Hawley takes his Standing at the Sky's Edge album to the Opera House, Buxton (tonight); Picture House, Edinburgh (Mon); Colston Hall, Bristol (Wed); Assembly Hall, Leamington Spa (Thu); Corn Exchange, Cambridge (Fri) and Troxy, London (Sat).
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