(Photo by Daniel Boud)
NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS
Sydney Opera House, December 16
A FRIEND OF MINE, NO FAN OF NICK CAVE who she views as a collection of misery and pretensions, texted as I was leaving the show, asking if I had had fun at a gig she figured was full of grief, grimness and holy hell.
Yes, actually. We all did. And so did he.
Between Cave’s banter with multi-instrumentalist compadre/collaborator Warren Ellis, (such as when Ellis brought a flute to a folked-up Breathless and Cave muttered “there’s a lot of them in hell, with the bagpipes”), the audience interaction with both men (less and less ironic cheers from behind Ellis as he threw more and more flamboyant shapes; arms and bodies offered to Cave to hold him when he ventured into and then on to the front seats) and his sometimes decaying line of introduction (“this is a joyful song [meaningful pause] so make the tucking most of it because it’s downhill from here”), the night was punctuated frequently with laughter.
And for those who know of Cave’s lifelong fascination with Elvis Presley, the fact that this lineup featuring three straight-from-the-choir-stalls backing singers – Janet Rasmus, Wendi Rose and T Jae Cole (in bronzed gold robes, power tones and smooth moves) – finally gave him his own Sweet Inspirations, was amusing on its own. And it didn’t require Cave, who looked, if it’s possible, thinner and taller and even darker of mane than when last we saw him, to shed his sharp, dark three-piece for a white jumpsuit with baubles.
Lordy though, weren’t we moved and lifted too. Gloriously so.
("His own Sweet Inspirations" - photo by Daniel Boud)
Comforted and carried by a song like Carnage, which appeared as a spiritual (but not a gospel), its images of fire and rain and children ported on the tip and sway of a sailing ship’s worksong, or Ghosteen, where wordless vocals led for several minutes before Cave declared “this world is beautiful”. Soothed and serenaded by Bright Horses, Ellis offering a keening siren voice, the backing singers the sea beneath him, and Cave assuring us that “this world is plain to see, it don’t mean we can’t believe in something”. And surprisingly touched by Cosmic Dancer, the elegant T-Rex song plumbing extra depths of pathos and the original up-swinging strings and backwards guitar replaced by Ellis’ single violin more a resonant saw working its way through resistant wood.
But lest this seem to support my friend’s expectations of sad upon sad, Hand Of God was an escalating torrent, the song seemingly preparing the way for the devil to be cast out in a fury as Cave loomed above us, The Weeping Song was bumped up to a barroom feel with more than a touch of swagger, and White Elephant went from slow burn testimonial to the work of a tortured defrocked priest on his last crusade, percussionist Larry Mullins and bassplayer Colin Greenwood turning majestic to dominant and finally explosive.
(Warren Ellis - by Daniel Boud)
We ended* in a sense where we had begun in this majestic show.
Spinning Song had opened the night offering us a “song [that] yearned to be sung”, Ellis’ multifaceted keyboard/synth bringing three or four instrumental tones around Cave’s near-falsetto invocation/promise that “peace will come”, its sadness feeling laced with hope. Ghosteen Speaks closed the night with an almost eerie airiness, the dual keyboards of Greenwood and Ellis and the trio of backing voices in emotional counterpoint but creating a similar aural mistiness, and Cave holding us close in this rising fog, telling us but also himself, “look for me, look for me, I am beside you, you are beside me”.
It was exactly right, you might even say fun: all of us sent home buoyed rather than buffeted, assured instead of afraid.
*it turns out it wasn’t the end. For reasons more bladder than blather ,after a two-and-a-half-hour show this reviewer hit the door when the house lights came up, thereby missing the post-lights second encore of Into My Arms. Yeah, you bet I’m kicking myself. #nexttimeholdon
A version of this review first ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.