On the face of it, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds aren’t exactly a natural fit with the O2. Cave’s songs range from the thrillingly cacophonous to the quietly lovely. But with their recurring themes of death, violence and religion, and a muse that rarely leads Cave in the direction of the mainstream, very few have ever seemed particularly arena-friendly. And that was before his latest album, Skeleton Tree, which forms the basis of his current tour — and which Cave completed after his 15-year-old son Arthur died falling from a cliff in Brighton.
Cave has warned against seeing the album as a direct response to the tragedy, emphasising that many tracks were written before it happened. Yet, while it’s true there are no explicit references to a child’s death, Skeleton Tree does open with the lines, ‘You fell from the sky/ Crash-landed in a field’ before serving up eight sparse, piercingly sad songs of loss, disorientation and yearning for the impossible return of a loved one. So how would this stuff come across in a concrete bowl of 20,000 iPhone-wavers? The answer, it turned out, was utterly triumphantly, with the incongruity of the setting somehow only adding to the admittedly weird beauty of Saturday’s show.
Wearing his usual dark suit and implausibly shiny shoes, Cave began uncompromisingly — sitting on a crooner’s stool and half-singing, half-whispering Skeleton Tree’s ‘Anthrocene’, with its aching cry of ‘I’m begging you please to come home now.’ But then he leapt on to the thrust stage, started grabbing fans’ outstretched hands and even did some stage-diving of the kind that most other 60-year-olds might consider unwise. Which would, I suppose, have been standard rock-star behaviour, expect for what he was singing as he did so: more mournfully stripped-down songs from the album, with lyrics such as ‘And in the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink.’
As the showmanship continued, Cave was at times positively genial — even if his songs still weren’t. ‘Sorry?’ he responded to a cry from the audience. ‘My wife’s a fox? Yes, not bad for a little guy from Warracknabeal.’ After a while, too, the newer songs were interspersed with what would be some of his greatest hits, if they’d actually been hits. Blistering versions of ‘Tupelo’, ‘From Her to Eternity’ and, above all, ‘Red Right Hand’ — the one used as the Peaky Blinders theme tune — allowed Cave to demonstrate his ability to sound menacing and scared at the same time, and also proved that the Bad Seeds are just as great at making a glorious racket as at providing perfectly judged gentle backing. We were invited to sing along with the gorgeous ‘Into Your Arms’, which we rather movingly did: again standard arena tactics, except that not many arena singalongs begin, ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’. Nonetheless — and yet another way in which this wasn’t your average rock concert — the intensity never dipped when Cave returned to the latest album.
During an unforgettable encore, he alarmed the security guards by running halfway down the huge standing area, climbing on to the shoulders of anyone who’d have him and, at one point, leading a complicated clapping sequence for ‘The Weeping Song’. ‘This takes concentration,’ he told the crowd, by now gathered around him with all the fervour of people at a revivalist meeting. ‘You can’t do it with a fucking iPhone in your hand.’ When he returned to the stage he took a few dozen audience members with him, and, pausing only to admire an ‘I Love Take That’ T-shirt that one of them was wearing, led a full-on, all-dancing, all stage-diving version of the exhilaratingly filthy ‘Stagger Lee’. On his further audience travels, he bumped into Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, who joined him for the concluding ‘Push the Sky Away’.
Looking back, I’m still not sure how Cave managed to keep moving from desolation to euphoria and back again without striking a single inauthentic note, or how he made the whole experience so ultimately joyous. What I do know, though, is that I’ve now got something new to say when a pub conversation turns, as pub conversations will, to the best gigs you’ve ever seen.