see all photos from this concert here

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
Mercury Rev
Silver Ray
Brixton Academy, London
Friday November 12 2004
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

Here’s a tale for you. This year marks the 20th anniversary of my first Bad Seeds gig. Dear me, doesn’t time fly, and all that. Why, it seems like 1984 was only...well, two decades ago, as a matter of fact. But I remember that first gig well. It was at the Lyceum in London, a faded opera house which had been turned over to the cause of rock ‘n’ roll. The previous year, I’d seen The Birthday Party at the same venue. The band were in full-on, fuelled-up mode, playing what must have been one of their last gigs, if not the very last one. So, the prospect of catching Nick Cave’s new incarnation so soon afterwards was intriguing. Alas, during the intervening year something odd seemed to have happened to Nick Cave. He’d gone from the freaked-out hellfire preacher of the Birthday Party to a stumbling, downbeat, out-of-it crooner, who barely seemed to have enough energy to perform. The venue crew appeared downright hostile to the band - the Bad Seeds took the stage in almost complete darkness, and Nick had to ask for the lighting to be switched on. But the highlight (of sorts) came mid-set, when Nick, lurching randomly around, knocked over the mic stand. A roadie ran on to set it right, and Nick, still stumbling around, bumped into him.  Whereupon the roadie rounded upon Nick and proceeded to beat him up, live on stage. For one glorious moment, Nick’s carefully cultivated demeanour of wasted rock star cool was replaced with an expression of pure fear. The roadie was dragged off by other crew members before any real damage was done, and Nick, mustering the last tattered shreds of his dignity, carried on with the gig - but I reflected that the Bad Seeds certainly didn’t make many friends on that night.

Later, thanks to some rather injudicious revelations in the music press and some (later still) confessions by Cave himself, I figured that the gig had coincided with Nick Cave’s heroin period, and the shambling figure I had beheld on stage - not to mention the obvious annoyance of the crew - amounted to Nick’s own demonstration that the drugs don’t work. Or, at least, not *those* drugs. But I stuck with the Bad Seeds, and over the years I’ve been rewarded with some unquestionably fine shows. Nick Cave, when he’s on form (which, I’m glad to say, is more or less always these days) is a stunning live performer. The albums have been good, too: at any rate, the uptempo ones have always hit the spot with me. I’m not so keen on Nick Cave the lovelorn balladeer, mind. I don’t think The Boatman’s Call, an album of mawkish love songs in which Nick bewails his splits with his wife and PJ Harvey (who doesn’t *quite* get mentioned by name) has left its case since the day I bought the CD. But now the word is that Nick has the fire in his belly once again. There’s a new two-albums-at-once release - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, a new tour, three sold-out London gigs, and a buzz of anticipation in the Brixton Academy that effectively drowns the Bob Dylan tracks playing through the PA.

But before the Bad Seeds, the support bands. Silver Ray, apparently, come from Melbourne, and thus are possibly old muckers of at least some of the Bad Seeds. They play a selection of bluesy instrumentals, down-home bar-band stuff which occasionally rises to crescendos and allows a little drama in. Not bad stuff if you’re in the mood, or at least in a down-home neighbourhood bar, but in the vast theatre that is the Brixton Academy the band don’t quite seem at home. Mercury Rev, on the other hand, are relatively famous on their own account, and clearly have a bunch of fans rooting for them at the front. Their whimsical, dreamy indie-pop has, perhaps, been eclipsed these days by The Flaming Lips, but they’re still hanging in there, still contenders, and still capable of coming up with nagging, lilting songs that stick in your head. They’re cheery and upbeat, clearly glad to be here, but I’m not sure how much impact their music is making beyond their own fans. I shall file them under ‘a nice interlude’, and if that seems like I’m damning the band with faint praise - well, yep, maybe I’m doing just that.

Finally, the Bad Seeds file on, to a gust of applause. No Blixa, but a four-piece gospel choir and two drummers. And here comes the man himself, striding purposely forward as if anxious to get the night’s business under way. The band strike up, and Nick flings himself into frontman mode, barrelling straight into ‘Get Ready for Love’, a fine burst of gospel thunder from the new album. And it’s good. Of course it’s good. And yet....something’s not quite right. Something’s not catching fire here.  Nick and the band are giving it loads, but somehow they’re not quite connecting. The stage at the Brixton Academy is a vast sweep of space under a magnificent proscenium arch, and it’s not every band that can successfully fill this huge space with their presence. The Bad Seeds would normally have no trouble - but this time it’s not quite happening. What’s the problem? I’d say it’s down to the stage layout tonight.

The band are arrayed on risers and stationed behind individual clusters of monitors, every musician in his own designated little area, and all pushed way, way back to the rear of the stage. This leaves a broad expanse of empty boards at the front upon which Nick Cave himself can throw his shapes and generally act the goat, antics which, of course, are the man’s forte.  But this formal, band-at-the-back arrangement does rather kill any chance of whipping up a real atmosphere. The musicians can’t come forward, they can’t interact, they can’t make contact - they have to stand in their designated spots, on their designated risers in their formal array, and they’re not allowed to move off their marks. There, I think, we have the problem with this show, the factor that stops it short at ‘good’ and prevents it pushing up to ‘great’. With the band in the background, static and detatched, it’s almost like watching Nick Cave performing a solo show to a backing tape. The band are *so* far back, so utterly removed from the proceedings, that they barely register. They’re certainly out of camera range. My photos from the gig feature Nick Cave alone, with nothing visible in the background but the snazzy light-effect backdrop. This makes Nick look rather like he’s addressing a convention of double-glazing salesmen, rather than performing with his band, but frankly, in order to grab a few shots in which the Bad Seeds were visible, I think I would’ve needed to bring in a hefty tripod, a telephoto lens, and military-spec rangefinding equipment.

The set is all new material, drawn from the latest album(s), and that’s not a problem for much of the audience who are clearly on familiar terms with the songs. But there are times when the momentum flags, times when the judicious injection of an old-skool brawler like ‘John Finn’s Wife’ or ‘Jangling Jack’ would’ve usefully lit a fire under everyone’s arses. Alas, such rumbustious oldies do not appear: it’s new stuff all the way, the set more or less arranged in a ‘loud song/quiet song’ see-saw. The ballads are substantial enough, although on the occasions when Nick decamps to his upright piano just in front of the drum kits, there’s effectively nobody fronting the show at all, and regardless of the quality of the songs, it all goes a bit flat. The noisy songs work better. ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ is a classic Bad Seeds stomper, and sure enough it roars and rumbles in the approved style. Alas, again, its power is diminished by the fact that while Nick is emoting furiously up front, the band are half a mile away. It’s frustrating. Nick is clearly giving it his all, and the Bad Seeds are brewing up what under other circumstances would be a right old storm, but they’ve deliberately introduced this absurd distance between performers and audience, and it’s just not easy to bridge that huge divide.  Look at Warren Ellis, on violin, flute and mandolin, bobbing and weaving like a demented carny busker - if only he was allowed to come right to the stage-edge and perform to *us*, he’d be an instant hit. As it is, stuck in his upstage spot, just off the left-hand drum riser, his natural showmanship goes to waste. Nick himself works the stage with a relentless determination, pacing from side to side to ensure that all parts of the crowd are catered to, doing his hip-thrusts and dramatic gestures, and even on the occasions when he has to steal a glance at his lyric sheets he doesn’t let up. Everyone’s doing the right thing, but the physical layout of the show - the distance, the formality - blunts the edge of potential greatness.

Eventually, it’s time for Nick to utter that hoary old rock ‘n’ roll euphemism - ‘Thanks, goo’night!’ (Translation: we’re going to go off stage for a while, and then come back for the encores) - and sure enough the band returns, with an extended encore set which features the Bad Seeds’ greatest hits. ‘Deanna’ is tossed off almost casually; ‘Red Right Hand’ churns and stews effectively. ‘Do You Love Me?’ seems to have had some tricksy stuff done to the rhythm, which, I have to say, is not an improvement on the original arrangement, but ‘The Weeping Song’ still retains its psyche-tugging lilt. It’s good to hear the old songs again, but I’m still not entirely comfortable about this idea of playing a set of newies, and then consigning the oldies to a separate, elongated, encore set. Not only does this sometimes allow the new songs to drag, as everyone waits for the energy-boost of the classic showstoppers that never quite arrives, but it’s also a bit too much like pensioning the old songs off to a care home, where they can burble amiably amongst themselves without getting in the way of the thrusting new numbers. And, of course, the formal stage layout, the lack of contact between band and audience, still takes the edge off things.  Call me a heretic if you will, but I don’t miss Blixa Bargeld’s musical contributions to the Bad Seeds - all I ever remember him doing was going ‘schlang, schlang, schlang’ on the guitar, anyway - but his physical presence, his quizzical glances at the crowd from the lip of the stage, would definitely have given the proceedings a lift tonight.

Last song is ‘The Mercy Seat’, the two drummers giving it the full Glitter Band treatment, hammering it along like a train, and then it’s ‘Thanks, goo’night’ for real. ‘See you in a coupla years,’ is Nick’s parting shot as he walks off, making it sound like his whole life works to a pre-planned schedule. But then, perhaps it really is all worked out in advance like that. Certainly, the carefully set out formality of tonight’s show seems to suggest that spontaneity doesn’t play a huge part in the world of Nick Cave these days. If so, I think that’s a pity, because this new, formal, approach does seem to damp down the power of the band, and the natural force of the man. Maybe Nick could do with a few more impromptu bouts of fisticuffs with random roadies. I’m sure that would liven things up no end.

see all photos from this concert here

Official site for Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds:

And a couple of unofficial ones:

Mercury Rev:

Silver Ray:

Brixton Academy:

Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: