All Points East, Victoria Park

Written by Patrick Heardman and Eloise Hendy.

It feels wrong to describe Nick Cave’s live shows as gigs. They are more like sermons, acts of worship. Cave performs from a protruding jetty, strutting like a preacher possessed with an unholy spirit. For most of the show, he stalks through a forest of outstretched arms, reaching up to the heavens above them.

At times the audience’s audulation tips into something closer to desperation, as the desire to be gifted with a touch from Cave’s hands whips those within arm’s reach into a kind of feeding frenzy. Sometimes Cave allows himself to be eaten whole. Leaning his weight into the bodies below, he lets himself be held up and then swallowed by his impassioned and adoring congregation. For a few moments Cave’s striking presence disappears completely, the only evidence of his existence the resounding tones of his now disembodied voice. When the screens show him submerged in the crowd, there is a palpable frisson of fear. What happens now? The fever his presence provokes could, it seems, easily tear him limb from limb.

But Cave is, of course, always in control. And, with as much dramatic flourish as he was devoured, he is returned to the stage, suddenly resurrected. He has the crowd not just in the palm of his hands, but wrapped around his index finger – the finger he occasionally touches to the blessed, like God in Michelangelo’s painting The Creation of Adam; like a crazed ET.

Cave and the Bad Seeds are nearing the end of a mammoth summer run of tour dates (they have just two shows left before a two month break), yet they still perform with an alluring vitality that defies their years. The Seeds churn out song after song of epic proportions. As Bright Horses opens, Cave’s wizened sidekick Warren Ellis spits into a bucket before letting out an angelic cry. Later, he leaps onto a chair to perform a wild electronic solo, his violin raised above his head. The set is punctuated by two constant refrains – again and again Cave breaks into repeated chants of “just breathe” and “cry, cry, cry, all night long”. These haunting repetitions pierce the long performance, marking even the most ecstatic moments with a tinge of desperation.

Cave moves masterfully between intense melancholy and near-hysteria. The centrepiece of the set is perhaps its darkest and most intimate moment, as Cave helms the grand piano for an earth-shattering rendition of I Need You. As tears visibly glisten in his eyes, the sound of sobbing rises from pockets of the crowd. But, Cave doesn’t allow the emotional dust to settle. Almost as soon as the song’s final notes sound, he’s back on his feet, launching into Tupelo – his electrically-charged, biblical tale of Elvis Presley’s birth during a storm in Mississippi. At first, the rousing number seems as if it is meant to provide a different kind of emotional release to its predecessor, as intimate melancholy is swapped for communal euphoria. Yet even in this moment of relief, Cave reminds the crowd of the looming blackness that lies ahead.

“The King was born in Tupelo,” Cave growls like a demented Gospel preacher, “a big black cloud / yonder on the horizon” he continues. Throughout the performance, Cave takes his rapturous audience on an emotional rollercoaster: as soon as he pulls them out of the depths of sorrow they’re thrown back in. And then, the switch is flipped again – the screens suddenly glowing red as Cave’s signature Red Right Hand rings out. Long-time Cave fans dance while newcomers to the fold scramble onto shoulders, nudged on by the song’s second life as the Peaky Blinders theme. Ecstasy returns with every chime.

Therein lies the paradox of Cave. He has all the air of an undertaker with his oil-slicked black hair, black suit, and wiry frame. He sings of death, and the depths of grief. Yet, he is also the preacher that lifts spirits; he is God to his adoring fans, bringing them to life with a light touch of the finger. He is both the destroyer and creator. As his own lyrics proclaim, “He’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a ghost, he’s a guru.”