Live Reviews

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Live Review

Cave and Ellis tour their joint recording, Carnage, invoking the spirits at a prayer meeting in all seven stations of Hell. Praise be!

Nick Cave has always cut a curious and unique swagger, a defrocked victorian priest who has stumbled on the elixir of life, his life mission then to preach another way, a spiritual mysticism of his own devising, garbed in exotic verbiage and bizarre imagery. With the recent release of Carnage, the collaboration with his longtime Bad Seed musical director, Warren Ellis, it is as if circumstance, good, bad and terrible, may just have contrived to create the peak of his musical journey, if maybe not for those of timid disposition. From Skeleton Tree onward into, especially, Ghosteen, the hands of Warren Ellis have been increasingly steering his music further and further into a world of drones and electronica, of tone poems and proclamations, and Carnage is now the logical destination, a sonic maelstrom of sounds both sacred and profane.

With the stage lit in an unforgiving blue light, the sound of sepulchral organ fills the Hall, a grand piano to the right of the stage, with a chair to the left, a violin and a guitar on stands alongside. Lots of pedals. A drum kit is visible at the back, with tables of lord knows what adjacent. Microphones, lots of microphones, one centre front, three behind the piano. As the organ rumbles elegiacally, cheers erupt, the audience is on its feet and ready for the ceremony.

Cave, as ever, suited and booted, white shirt and jet black hair, seemingly ageless, bounds on. Ellis, bearded and weirded, wild eyes and wild hair, also suited, shambles to his seat. New collaborator, Johnny Hostile, is in shadow, at the back of the stage and the three pillars of Wendi Rose, Janet Erasmus and T Jae Cole are standing behind the piano, swaying in anticipation. Acknowledging the audience, Cave stays standing, and the show begins.

Opening with a salvo from Ghosteen, Spinning Song and Bright Horses, the breadth of sound that Ellis coaxes out of the keyboard perched precariously on his lap, is immense, a dense revered judder, that Hostile adds to with all manner of electronic trickery. Cave kicks shapes and pirouettes, intoning the words like a mantra, only occasionally dipping into his rich baritone. It isn’t until Night Raid, another presence from Ghosteen, that he moves to the piano, the clean tones making for an effective contrast with the Ellis/Hostile barrage.

Carnage, the title track follows, gaunter and all the more horrifying than on record, as the band and the audience settle into a synchronicity of acceptance, the mood encroaching on malevolence as the powerful oratory of White Elephant unfolds. With Hostile alternating between bass guitar, a drum kit and loops, the otherwise sense of foreboding is muted and becalmed by the balm of the trio of backing vocalists, giving a warm and soothing balm to the wracked brimstone of Cave. A wonderful contrast, why has this not featured before?

Ghosteen, the title track, and another from Carnage, Lavender Fields follow, with more of the same, the mood relentlessly bleak. Ghosteen’s Waiting For You then leads into a beautifully sincere I Need You, the first song from any earlier work, which, although only stemming from Skeleton Tree, seems so much older. This sense of greater calm is then seized upon for the exquisite cover of Cosmic Dancer, the T.Rex song that Cave contributed to last years Hal Willner helmed tribute to Marc Bolan. Ellis has switched now to violin, and add two perfectly formed solos, with just enough quirk to remind it is him.

Waiting For You provides next one of my highlights of the show, the softer side of Cave, the melody unfurling around gentler and deeper vocal registers. The contrast, when this is followed by the naked aggression of Hand Of God, is a master stroke, presented here even more strikingly discordant and harsh than on the record, where the string quartet can leaven it. Descending into an abyss of choral chanting, with Cave howling, beseeching, on his knees in front of the three singers, Ellis is the ululating MC, conducting the chaos, his feet dancing from pedal to pedal, Hostile thumping away at the back. Terrifying and tantalising.

Shocked into speech, the audience have now come alive, with a steady stream of comments descending from the balconies, causing the odd caustic aside, from Cave, in return. An hour and a quarter into the show and he sounds relaxed and relieved. A brace of songs apiece from Ghosteen and Carnage, the last being Balcony Man, which, whilst nominally the tale of Cave’s own COVID and lockdown survival tactics, from the balcony of his Brighton home, here it is dedicated to the balcony conversationalists. It seems a fitting end.

But, of course, it isn’t. After a wait slightly longer than the rudimentary expectations, back they come, with Hollywood, ahead of the delightful surprise of Henry Lee, with Wendi Rose playing the PJ part, the setting somehow still fitting into the sonic template devised by Ellis. Albuquerque closes this triad, meaning they have played seven of the eight songs on Carnage. But the audience, perhaps having read the reviews elsewhere, know all is not done yet, exhorting for still more.

And this they get, as just Cave and the backing singers troop on and perform the ‘greatest hit’, Into My Arms, in perhaps the most affecting version I have heard yet, topping even the original and the solo rendition from Alexandra Palace. Another surprise, then, Ellis and Hostile lurch on, Ellis taking a moment to unbox and put his flute together, for Breathless, the flute sounding bizarrely thin, and out of place, after the instrumentation overdrive of the rest of the concert thus far.

By the time Cave and his companions get to Ghosteen Speaks, acceptance is taken that the show is over. Brief applause, lights up and home quietly, most exhausted and exhilarated by the experience. I confess I had held out a little hope for a location-specific showing of Red Right Hand, given the appropriation of the song into the world of Peaky Blinders, but no such like. That I would like to have heard in an Ellis deconstruction.

There are still shows left on the tour for Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. You can find all the dates, here.

Listen to White Elephant from Carnage, below.

Nick Cave: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Warren Ellis: Twitter / Instagram

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