25 - 25 September
There’s tension in the air at the Manchester Arena tonight.
That comes as no surprise; quite apart from a collective feeling of apprehension at how Nick Cave might tackle songs from last year’s Skeleton Tree on his first UK tour since his son Arthur’s death in 2015, for many here, this is the first time returning to the venue since the 23 May bombings. A senseless act that saw other parents also lose their own sons and daughters.
Long lines for security checks are necessary but leave some attendees anxious; three songs in and Magneto is brought to an early close so that a crowd member can receive first aid, adding to the jitters. Yet it’s Cave himself who breaks the ice: “Freedom of speech and all that but shut the fuck up about my socks!” he cheerily barks at someone in the front row after a three-song opening run that might suggest a more sombre evening lay ahead. Anthrocene, Jesus Alone and Magneto are no less gut-wrenching live in front of 10,000 people than they are on record – Jesus Alone, in particular, is a discomforting experience, its juddering synths coming to the fore amidst the huskily repeated refrain of “With my voice I am calling you”. Later on, Girl In Amber is performed amidst a black and white backdrop of Cave on the Brighton coastline, which brings a girl next to us to tears. She’s not alone.
The audience is stock-still during these moments, but Cave rarely is. He paces the stage restlessly, at times it seems he’s trying to dodge and weave away from the weight of his own words, while at others, their emotional force pulls his body like a puppet.
You could argue that in making this run his largest set of UK shows to date, he’s hiding in plain sight, able to revisit Skeleton Tree in characterless enormo-domes away from the whites of the front row’s eyes. Cave’s seems quick to refute that though; for one thing the newer songs suck the space from the room – the arena has rarely been in such rapt silence as it is tonight. For another, he’s constantly reaching out to communicate and hold hands with his audience, culminating during an encore that sees him climbing into the first row of seats during The Weeping Song, before encouraging more than 100 people to dance with him on stage for a particularly charged performance of Stagger Lee.
There’s also the fact that so much of tonight feels joyous. For all of the pared-down material, there’s plenty of moments where the ever-reliant Bad Seeds can flex their muscles; From Her To Eternity lights the touch paper, but it’s the one-two salvo of Red Right Hand and The Mercy Seat that truly ignite, with Cave turning to his band and exhorting them to push themselves harder in between a deliciously glottal delivery of the latter’s “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. He looks, for all the recent travails and tragedies, like a man still thoroughly enjoying himself.