Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Necks – ICC Sydney Theatre, Sydney 20/01/17

This is admittedly a long bow, but indulge for just a moment and allow for it to be drawn: there is a scene from the animated children’s show Arthur in which the show’s various anthropomorphic school friends are discussing music. Binky, the bulldog, wants to hear a piece of “avant-garde” music his mates are excitedly listening to. At first, he’s uncertain: “When do they stop tuning their instruments and play the music?,” he asks; before Francine, the monkey, reassures him: “This is the music.” Moments later, it clicks: Binky is off in his own world, hallucinating vivid and colourful patterns as he floats in the air during a fantastical dream sequence.

Segue: for the untrained ear, it may be initially confusing to calibrate the improvisational jazz of The Necks, who have been brandishing the stuff for longer than a fair few audience members have been alive. Somewhere among the rapid crescendos and startling cacophony, however, one finds their own rhythm and their own connection. Across a 45-minute improvised piece, the trio hold the lion’s share of early arrivals in stunned silence. The rest, retreating for the bar with tails between legs, just aren’t trying hard enough. Still, it’s their loss.

In the years since Nick Cave was last touring, in support of 2013’s ‘Push the Sky Away’, he was stricken by unspeakable tragedy that could only be truly processed by the haunting, sombre dirge of last year’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ LP. The record was deservedly met with some of the best reviews of his 30-plus year career, and a legion of fans collectively grieved alongside their hero in perhaps his lowest, darkest moment. With this in mind, there is a considerable weight behind many of the songs performed this evening lifted from ‘Skeleton Tree’. The guttural synth loop of Jesus Alone pierces through darkness, the despair of Distant Sky lingers in the air and the miserable waltz of I Need You hits straight for the heart and lands every punch with every drawn out, exasperated “need”. Performing these songs, Cave is in pure catharsis mode, doubling over himself and grandly flailing about the ICC Sydney Theatre’s impressively expansive stage. He is working through every last raw emotion, burning an effigy and building his own spectacle.

Although the new material has quite an impact, special mention should also be made of the Bad Seeds classics that weave their way through the setlist. From Her to Eternity, a debut-album throwback, truly feels like the devil’s music; while the sinister shuffle of Red Right Hand turns the song’s central antagonist into the man who will be the 45th president of the United States of America by the time you read this – although he is not mentioned by name. Cave is such a prolific songwriter that he forgets better songs than many of his peers have ever thought of – and that’s quite literal when it comes to the encore of the show. In it, Cave grants two requests. The first Jack the Ripper, which sees Cave make yet another of his multiple visits to the front barricade to directly sing into his adoring crowd’s face. It’s later followed by People Ain’t No Good, which rouses a swaying sing-along and of the best full-band performances of the evening.

At its conclusion, Cave dutifully notes that people – in his experience, at least – are, actually, pretty good. “Vastly better,” he offers. It’s a moment where a glimmer of hope, through all of Cave’s pain and heartbreak, is allowed to find its place. As we were so dutifully taught by one of Cave’s personal heroes, the late Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light sets in.”

Gallery: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds @ ICC Sydney Theatre, Sydney 2017 / Photos By Maria Boyadgis

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