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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Palace Theatre, London, October 11th 2009

As the very knowledgeable readers of Whiskyfun will know, Mr Nick Cave is something of a polymath. The writer of some of the most achingly tender lyrics you’ll find on record (think of ‘Into my arms’ from The Boatman’s Call), he also scribbles occasional outpourings of splenetic violence (“with an ashtray as big as a fucking really big brick I split his head in half”) and managed to summarise the nature of the human condition in the seminal ‘No pussy blues’.

Nick Cave
He plays piano and sings with the Bad Seeds, of late probably the most powerful rock and roll band on the road, and also fronts, swaggering with Fender Thinline in hand, the uber-grungy Grinderman. He has written film scores and even appeared on the silver screen. He’s a poet; and a bit of a scholar famously writing an introduction to an edition of St Mark’s Gospel. And tonight he’s an author, reading from his new work, The Death of Bunny Munroe, in which, according to one critic, we see him “explore or at least entertain the notion that there might be a dimension to human life that is resistant to scientifically empirical explanation or calibration”.
It’s the story of a sex-obsessed salesman, who is rarely far from a handy bottle of hand cream to help him relieve his desires. He has a depressed wife, but she dies. He has a son; he doesn’t. There’s also a serial killer on the run (more whacking then), and a sticky end in sight for our eponymous hero; and it’s not as if Bunny doesn’t give a toss. He’s haunted by a sense of impending doom: he knows there’s something bad coming at the climax. Hand Cream
The novel is available in printed form, but also exists as a brilliantly conceived audiobook, with a stunning i-Phone application.
Cave reads the whole book (some of it on video) and there is a soundtrack composed by Cave and his Bad Seeds, Grinderman and film-score collaborator, Warren Ellis. Ellis is on stage tonight, performing some of the sound accompaniment (some is on tape) while Cave reads three chapters in all, each accompanied by a visual score. It’s heavy-going stuff. Dark, uncomfortably explicit (an explicitness which verges on the tedious), enlivened only by the occasional joke (the bulk of which involving either Kylie Minogue or Avril Lavigne, or both). And frankly it’s not read that well: Cave stumbles over quite a lot of the phrasing, which prevents him picking up the kind of pace and rhythm that his carefully chosen words need. This is partly because he’s reading from disordered publisher’s page-proofs and quite possibly, suggested the Photographer (who’s off duty tonight, no cameras allowed), because he’s a little uncomfortable with the material himself. Thankfully he’s also got bassist Martyn P Casey with him, and in between some mostly uninspiring questions and answers (I blame the audience for the paucity of the questions), they play a brilliant, almost ‘unplugged’ set.
Or at least it’s almost every song you would want Nick Cave to play if he were in your living-room without the Bad Seeds. And the audience love it. Nick Cave
He started with ‘West country girl’, followed by ‘Hold on to yourself’ from this year’s Dig Lazarus Dig (after a anxious hunt for the lyrics), ‘Lime tree arbour’ and ‘Mercy Seat’. The piano playing was spare, Ellis’s contributions well chosen and largely recessive with the bass holding it all together. Cave’s voice was remarkably tuneful, freed from having to sing above the cacophonous Bad Seeds, and added a sometimes missing dimension of gentleness to the songs. Pausing only for the occasional sip of throat tea he sang the wonderful ‘God is in the house’, Tupelo (with Ellis drumming on a single snare), ‘The weeping song’, ‘The ship song’, and ‘Dig Lazarus dig’.
It must have been about then that someone asked (strangely, the only questioner to get a microphone): “Do you think Polly Harvey would join you on stage to sing if she were here?”. Following a brief exchange with one of the boxes, Polly (the object of Cave’s desire in ‘Into my arms’, and for that matter most of ‘The Boatman’s Call’) duly appeared (as did two video-camera wielding blokes from out of nowhere) to duet, perhaps not quite spontaneously, on ‘Henry Lee’. After that he finished with ‘Babe, you turn me on’ and a version of ‘Grinderman’’ that could have come out of a garage.
Perhaps the best moment of the evening was saved for his return for the encore. When he announced that he’d sing a couple more songs one of the persistent questioners stood and asked “why no more readings from the book?”. “Well I’ve read three pieces”, said Cave, “and it’s very complicated with all the music and stuff. Will Self just sits on a stool and reads for ten minutes and then fucks off”. You could see the majority of the audience were cringing at the suggestion of more gruesome prose. It was hardly surprising that when an exasperated Cave eventually said, “Well what do you want, reading or songs?”, the response “songs” came loud and clear from the overwhelming majority of the crowd, who were rewarded with ‘Into my arms’ and ‘Lucy’.

And I can assure you that although Bunny Munroe has its moments, and I do heartily recommend that you look at the i-Phone application, the majority of people who left the theatre in a state of delight will remember the evening not for the member-wielding Munroe, but for Mr Cave’s delightfully performed songs. – Nick Morgan

Listen: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on MySpace.

Nick Cave PJ Harvey
Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

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