After an intense night of artistic exhibitionism and thunderous, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, the second day of Croatia’s largest open-air festival kicks off quietly and doesn’t pull in the masses until the sun sets. That INmusic commences with its Main Stage program around 5:00 PM isn’t an issue in itself; the challenge lies with the festival being held on workdays, meaning that locals cannot arrive at the Isle of Youth from work in time to see the first names, while the majority of campers enjoy their days off in the charming Croatian capital and feel no rush to head back to lake Jarun before dusk. This explains a painful lack of spectators during the performances of Ischariotzcky, a local indie pop band, and ZMaJ, another local bunch, but with a more prominent electronic core.
Finally, around 6.30 PM, several hundred people come together to marvel at Bombino, the Nigerien guitar prodigy with a particularly powerful, rebellious spirit. As a young man who spent years in exile, watching his fellow musicians executed, in a country where the innocent were persecuted, where guitars were considered a symbol of rebellion and were banned accordingly, Omara “Bombino” Moctar is, unfortunately, extremely well-equipped to use his instruments not as a weapon, but a symbol of resistance and kindness of the human spirit. Today Bombino is a proper world music superstar, and for a reason – his otherworldly guitar-playing skills, coupled with his raspy voice and unconventional rhythms, make for a fascinating listen. You may not understand Tamasheq (there are only about 500,000 native speakers, after all), but here the emotion is so raw and inviting that whoever sees the 38-year-old playing, feels the connection to his spirit and culture instantly.
It is almost 9:00 PM and the Main Stage is finally shaping up to become a field of sweat and tears, in anticipation of the descent of one Nick Cave into Chaos. Nevertheless, a 15,000-strong crowd is first completely taken by surprise and seduced by St. Vincent, the multi-instrumentalist heroine of latter-day synth-rock, who also just happens to get her moniker from a Nick Cave song (the hospital in which Dylan Thomas died, taken from “There She Goes My Beautiful World”). Anne Clark is no performance novice; the 35-year-old emerges on stage in a flesh-toned spandex, followed by three backing musicians, two of whom were wearing costumes described most accurately as something taken from the set of a Kink.com movie. With four albums to her name, the winner of the first Grammy for Best Alternative Album to be awarded to a solo female act in the past 20 years is experienced, calm, commanding and utterly worthy of a Main Stage performance. Her intense mixture of hard electronica, rock, pop, and jazz, reflects on her musically trained roots, but it’s her charisma and impeccably elegant choreography that command the most attention.
St. Vincent kicks off with several tunes from her latest release, 2017’s Masseduction. “Sugarboy” is poppy and hectic, but “Los Ageless” immediately sets the tone for an emotionally charged performance, full of revealing verses, such as “How can anybody have you? How can anybody have you and lose you, and not lose their minds, too?” Several girls in the front cry. Over the course of 75 minutes, Clark performs 10 out of 13 songs off her new album, never losing the audience’s attention as she slithers and twirls across the stage against a backdrop of large light bulbs on even larger panels, in turns angry and tender, but never anything less than powerful. The very end sees her performing an acoustic version of “Prince Johnny”, an enigmatic tale of decadent people wandering aimlessly through the circles of socialization, wishing to become more “real”. Perhaps that’s what the song is about, perhaps it’s not, but Clark delivers it beautifully, with playful poise.
Immediately afterward, another display of mighty feminism bursts from the World Stage, as local pop-funk-jazz legends, Jinx, emerge to celebrate a quarter of a century since they got together with plethora hits. The stage, which can only host about a couple of thousand of people, is packed, and it becomes challenging even to move around the island as hundreds of bystanders position themselves along the only road in the hope of getting a glimpse of the band. Whoever isn’t crying their heart out to singer Jadranka Bastajic’s mature and potent lyrics about the frailty of human relationships, is crying with joy, watching Croatia’s final group stage game at the World Cup. Having beaten Island 2:1, Croatia is the only team besides Uruguay to have won all three of their group stage matches, proceeding into the elimination round without difficulty. Virtually hundreds of locals cheer in front of the video beam, besides themselves with joy.
By the time the Bad Seeds emerge from the darkness, the field around the Main Stage is graced with a crowd never before seen in such numbers. If it was difficult to push your way through the road during the Jinx concert, this time around it is all but impossible to move from where you were standing the moment the band commenced with the show. Expectedly enough, once Nick Cave descended (literally) on the hoards of worshippers, nobody appeared even remotely interested in moving. More than 30,000 people stand transfixed as the seven harbingers of doom appear before them in the flesh.
To try and describe Nick Cave’s live performances to those who haven’t witnessed them would be a fool’s errand – to try and retell a single takeaway truth to those who have would be arrogant blasphemy. And yet there we all are, trapped beneath his enormous weight and liberated by his righteous, fuming breath. Of course, Cave immediately starts pacing up and down a set of stairs set up exclusively for him, his connection with his flock immediately made real, made carnal.
As people throw flowers at him, “Jesus Alone” begins, and Cave frantically starts pointing the finger at various attendees in the front rows. “You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now,” he sneers at a woman likely too young to fully appreciate her temporary presence on Earth, “You’re an old man sitting by a fire, hear the mist rolling off the sea,” he pitifully shakes the hand of a middle-aged man, “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?” he scoffs at another young lady who appears to be too transfixed with her preacher to even ponder the meaning of human existence. “With my voice, I’m calling you,” beckons Cave to his audience and the skies.
“Magneto”, another behemoth from the band’s latest album, Skeleton Tree, begins, and all present fall completely silent, as if they’re not breathing, waiting to see what their pastor will bring next, who he will touch, who he will, perhaps, heal. “Mostly I never knew which way was out, once it was on, it was on and that was that,” murmurs Cave in just two of his million protean lyrics with their flexible, mercurial meanings. It has been said that when you listen to Nick Cave for a long time, you are overwhelmed with a tendency, perhaps a necessity to interpret his lyrics differently as you age. After more than 15 years and several moltings, I’ve come to realize this is absolutely true.
“Do You Love Me?” is one of the all-time favorites seldom played in the past years that gets the crowds fist-pumping toward the sky, with watery eyes and sore throats. Cave’s conversational tone is offset with a sepulchral, almost indecipherable refrain; though he appears to simply repeat the words “do you love me”, one if never sure if this is a question Cave doesn’t want to know the answer to, or an answer of sorts, a sadistic, rhetorical play and a cruel twist of narrative. The interpretations are so many and while the truth is elusive, Cave’s presence is fully corporal. He is always ferocious, always all in, his unique band never falling short of deafening brilliance whenever necessary.
If the first 20 minutes or so sounded like a deviant sermon, “From Her to Eternity” and “Loverman” (played live this year for the first time since 1999) set the stage ablaze, with deep red drapes and lights swallowing a screaming Cave, who performs as if he’s having a seizure. “Take off that dress, I’m coming down,” he bellows during “Loverman” while crawling on his knees, and we are all hypnotized – this is what passion, perhaps even love, and madness look like, this is our one chance of going berserk without being punished for a transgression. The song about a man going insane with lust reminds us that Cave is not a god, nor a ghost, nor a guru: he’s a truly unique, phenomenally demented man, yearning to acknowledge, verbalize and liberate the deepest, most inhibited of emotions. Often violent, never casual, and always fully human. There are no half measures and no gimmicks in his posture, which is what makes his music so damn spectacular.
The second half of the show brings an amusing change in tone. “You guys won the football, that’s great. Here’s to you,” he says as “Into My Arms” elicits the first proper singalong of the evening. “Red Right Hand” is to the present what “The Godfather” may be to a first-year drama student, and while “Girl in Amber” provides another dash of solemnity so deeply embedded inSkeleton Tree, the rest of the set is all, well, fun and games, for want of a more appropriate description. “Jubilee Street” is manic and deafeningly loud, hundreds of people again attempting to touch cave as he howls, “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying – look at me now!” Again, one is never sure if he’s talking about ascent into heaven or descent into hell, but Warren Ellis is at it again, breaking most of his violin strings as he convulses alongside Cave.
Funnily enough, once “The Weeping Song” begins, the mood also lightens, Cave recoiling from his trance for a far more jovial delivery. At one point he even pauses the songs so he could laugh at what someone was yelling back at him from the crowd. “Tupelo” is crazy yet contained, so it’s up to a 10-minute rendition of “Stagger Lee” to bring out the beast yet again. This time, like any other time, Cave extracts a young female from the audience to dance with him and relive the many atrocities committed by the eponymous character.
As they shout the verses back at each other, at one point Cave loses it and screams: “Yeah, I’m Stagger Lee, and you better get down on your knees and suck my dick because if you don’t, you’re gonna be dead!” Realizing what he had just said to a young lady trembling with excitement before him, Cave checks himself and starts chortling apologetically. The masses are on fire, and the laughter continues, as he teases both his sidekick and other fans, chatting them up and even forgetting the lyrics in the process. Even the reflective, tragic “Push the Sky Away” brings plenty of smiles as the fans won’t stop demanding more songs. “OK, we can play one more, just one more, but you gotta wait until these guys are done playing this one, it’ll be a minute or two,” says Cave mid-song, astonishingly lifting the mood yet again.
“Rings of Saturn”, the only uplifting tune off Skeleton Tree, is a worthy closer, with Cave doing what he does best – describing the actions of a woman he lusts after with acute detail, in ecstasy. Somehow, everyone is smiling, overcome with joy. Seems like not even Nick Cave is above being a simple human with simple emotions. In retrospect, if any part of his astonishing performances maybe is a gimmick, it must be the best-disguised gimmick contemporary rock has ever seen. Not unlike something you would expect from the Devil himself.