This is what childbirth must feel like… from the baby’s point of view. I found myself, standing in the road outside an art nouveau theatre along with just under 2000 others. When the organisers decided to open only one of the five double doors, there could only be one outcome. Subject one of the most anarchic populations in the world to the delicate art of “queuing” for a rock concert and you’re bound to get moshing before you’ve even set foot inside.
When Nick Cave comes to Paris you don’t expect a man who can mention, amongst others, Karl Marx, John Wilmot (even if he does spell it with two ‘l’s), and Philip Larkin in the same song to play anywhere other than in the intellectual protectorate that is the Quartier Latin. Of course, through an almost thirty year career that has seen the Boys Next Door turn into the Birthday Party and the Birthday Party pave the way for the Bad Seeds, the type of audience that goes to a Cave gig is going to contain a peculiar medley of age groups, dress senses, and musical tastes.
I had to wonder, what were these people expecting? I shouldn’t think they expected their enthusiastic welcome to be met by a dodgy sound system, one that struggled to comprehend what the Bad Seeds were doing. It crackled angrily as the band launched into the opening bars of “Abattoir Blues”.
And no matter how much the suited, booted, balding Cave jerked his way around stage, imploring the Lord to give him some return, he still struggled to pull himself out of the tone-flat groove. Those of us used to being pummelled in the face by Cave’s strident early productions rode these technical difficulties out, waiting eagerly for the show to really kick off. The couple in front of me, obviously expecting the gothic romance of Murder Ballads, looked like a pair of startled kittens. I reckon they don’t share my opinion that the latest release, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, marks a real return to form.
The danse macabre truly began as the dead were brought out for “Messiah Ward”. The Bad Seeds hammered their instruments like demented marionettes as their evangelical puppeteer ordered his congregation to “Look away, look away.” Of course we couldn’t. We were mesmerised.
Time has done nothing to soothe Nick Cave’s soul and he’s not about to let us rest on our laurels either. If Cave wasn’t storming across the stage literally kicking against pricks that only he could see, he was reeling on the edge of the rostrum pointing a damning finger in our direction. Except the parables of “Hiding All Away”, “The Lyre of Orpheus”, and “Nature Boy” are not meant to help us save ourselves. Their central message reminds us that menace infuses the aesthetic fragility that makes us human, whether manifested through such actions as love-making or praying.
As on the second disc of the new two-volume offering, “Easy Money” and “Supernaturally” come mid-set. They offer, arguably, the best two performances of new material from Cave and his band of not-so-merry men. Saint Nick lights a cigarette and takes his place at the melancholy upright piano for the beginning of “Easy Money”. This piece is somewhat reminiscent of the tunes on No More Shall We Part, but with an edge that is sometimes lacking on the 2001 album. Then “Supernaturally” erupts through the feedback finale of the previous number—its thumping bass-line rattling your ribcage and making sure that you really do feel the “army of tanks bursting from your chest”. Old Nick is back on his feet offering no reprieve.
The threatening sense of inescapable alienation in “Babe You Turn Me On” is made ironically clear when Cave again leans forward into the pit and pinpoints someone to tell them “I put one hand on your round ripe heart and the other down your panties.”
The second half of the set is definitely better than the first, despite the sound system’s continued struggle. This was especially obvious when the all-playing, all-gesticulating Warren Ellis, the other star of this travelling freak show, played his flute intro for “Breathless,” blowing into Cave’s microphone.
The tidal wave of Cave’s Bible rock kept us punch drunk through “Get Ready for Love” and “O Children” till the big gospel offering “There She Goes My Beautiful World”. I’d heard this song played before with three pianos, a rendition that gives it certain warmth. But such warmth really wasn’t the point of tonight’s show. With the balance tipped heavily towards everything except for the solitary keyboard, we understood that Cave really meant it when he shouted, “If you’ve got a trumpet, get up on your motherfucking feet and blow it.” One hour and 12 songs later the Bad Seeds were saying their mercis.
But you just knew the preaching wasn’t over. Protestants have to work hard for redemption. Though the devil might have him by the ankles, Cave will only be dragged down kicking and screaming. The encore began with the best performance of the evening. “Red Right Hand” rang out in this small venue to great effect. It is often said of Cave that his is an Old Testament vision, and this song’s reference to the legend of Zarah goes some way to justifying such analysis. This is, however, a facile conclusion. His God may be the slaying creator of Genesis, but Cave’s persona is that of the pivotal biblical figure John the Baptist. A prophet lost in the desert of a new age. Except that his burning light is not here to offer salvation. He’s here to steal your soul, whether it’s out of vampiric need as in “Deanna,” or simply because damnation is inevitable, as in “Henry Lee” and “The Weeping Song”. Cave was back on his perch explaining, no, pleading with us that, “this is a weeping song, a song in which to weep, a song in which to weep!”
The show had now moved on and the pit was frenetic, making Cave’s attempt to quiet things down with “God Is in the House” nigh on impossible. A lad in a green T-shirt who had spent the whole evening at the front in a solo pogo, stopped, looked around, and then carried on. When Cave paused at his piano to whisper “If we all hold hands and very quietly shout”, somebody thought they’d lend a hand and screamed “hallelujah” for him. I’m not sure if this was a voluntary mark of disrespect (unlikely) or simply a manifestation of the frenzy Cave’s sermonising narratives had whipped up.
“City of Refuge” and “Stagger Lee” took us to what seemed the final goodnight. And indeed, with the roaring accolades still in their infancy, part of the theatre emptied. More fool them. We had to clap for 10 minutes, but we know full well that techies don’t come on the stage to re-tune the instruments just for a laugh.
Cave led a slightly reduced version of the Bad Seeds back on to offer us the ideal ending, two perfectly coupled performances: “Into My Arms” and one of the best indie singles of all time, “Mercy Seat”. We’d just witnessed two hours, 21 songs, and now the measuring of truth was truly over. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were let down by either the sound system or the engineer at the mixing desk. At least the band was wired up and, in the end, we were too.
I think this was an improvement on the Nick Cave of recent years. I won’t say it’s down to the departure of Blixa Bargeld. I won’t say it’s down to Warren Ellis’ newfound artistic freedom. And I won’t say that it’s because the new double album was recorded here in Paris. And anyway there is no proof.
Though the small venue was suited to the Australian gothic revelations, you couldn’t help feeling that opener Mercury Rev needed a bigger stage. It’s not because they’re a bigger band (neither in size nor scope), but because their songs maintain filmic ambitions. They did, after all, start out by writing soundtracks for experimental movies.
The boys from Buffalo took the stage, then stopped. Instead of launching straight into the evening’s opening piece, “Little Rhymes”, they waited for silence… Jonathan Donahue looked up to those sitting in the gods, a happy-stupid expression on his face. Only once he had acknowledged the presence of every section of the audience did he stride over to the microphone. Perhaps this would have had more of an effect if everyone had already entered the theatre, or if those there were in tune to the fact that they were at a gig. Two girls next to me were still busy giggling at messages they’d been texting to each other.
Perhaps Mercury Rev thought that their brand of pseudo-abstract, semi-progressive, indie-pop ballads was so suited to a Gauloise-smoking, philosophising, French audience that they could command reverential respect. Perhaps they hadn’t realised that they weren’t actually headlining the show. I don’t know. The result though was a rather effete introduction.
That said and done, Mercury Rev are better live than recorded. The stage gives life to their songscapes, from “Holes” to “Opus 40”, from “Tonite It Shows” to the new offering, “Black Forest”. Okay, so the props might seem tacky, the plastic garland around the microphone, the flouncy shirt, the Christmas lights on the reduced keyboard. Okay, so the performance was affected and the vocals effected. Okay, so you couldn’t help thinking that Donahue was continually posing for photographers in the pit. But if Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream were a pop act then it would be Mercury Rev. Right down to the way most of the songs never end on a perfect cadence, snubbing closure. A musical expression of fairy-like magic.
My sole complaint would be that Mercury Rev’s recent material tends to lack any real depth. The intrinsic kinesis of their songs may be reminiscent of Ravel-like impressionism (and often you can’t help feeling that they’d love to be backed by a full symphonic orchestra), but time and again they are just pseudo-abstract and semi-progressive.
All in all though, Mercury Rev are worth the effort. And as the final notes of “Spiders and Flies” atmospherically evaporated into the gently swaying crowd, I realised that these 45 minutes were the band’s Advent offering. And they say that pairing the Bad Seeds with Mercury Rev is a bit odd!