A gigantic shadow skulks back and forth on the wood-brown tiles of the sweeping Plenary auditorium walls. The venue – a vast sea of lime green velvet seats – is buzzing with an eclectic crowd, many of whom form an unauthorised mosh pit at the lip of the stage. A “tall handsome man” stoops down over his adoring disciples, caressing their fingertips and turns ‘We Real Cool’ lyrics into whispery sweet nothings.
This is the entrance 57-year-old Australian musician Nick Cave made at his final show at The Plenary in Melbourne on Thursday night. No support act. No need. The night’s all about Cave. Instantly recognisable with his whippet-thin build, greasy ink-black hair and deep, velvety vocals, Cave is as brooding, contemplative and intense on stage as his many records suggest.
Despite his cult icon status, the concert is all about the music and immersing yourself in Cave’s lavish murderous poetry and swelling scores. Bringing a handful of regular Bad Seeds back home for the Australia/New Zealand tour, he seduced his eclectic audience with a distinctive blend of goth-rock balladry and post-punk mythology from his extensive repertoire.
A quarter of the setlist came from 2012’s luscious Push The Sky Away, still fresh and evocative on the back of this year’s stylish docudrama 20,000 Days On Earth. “Who took your measurements, from your toes to the top of your head?” (‘We Real Cool’), were the first lines to be growled on the night, with Cave singling out a woman up the front and directing his languid line straight at her.
Casual Bad Seed Barry Adamson bashed out the eerie, Hammer Horror-style keys to ‘Red Right Hand’ as Cave emerged panther-like from behind his black grand piano to prowl the stage (unavoidably evoking memories of the Barossa Valley ad the song featured in). Other Bad Seed regular Martyn Casey returned on the bass while Thomas Wylder sweated it out on drums.
Cave riffed on the likes of Hannah Montana and Wikipedia in the gritty, gruff ‘Higgs Bosom Blues’. Upper-seat audiences bit their lips as Cave encouraged fans in the front row to touch his white shirt chest, cooing “Can you feel me heart beat? Boom boom boom” (so up close and personal you could hear people murmuring and laughing through his mic).
He sung, with a voice like a leopard purring inside a cello, about come-hither prostitutes seducing local boys like red-light district mermaids in ‘The Waters Edge’. He declared, with a romantic touch, about his love for a raven-haired beauty (most probably a nod to his porcelain-skinned, model wife Susie Bick) in ‘Black Hair’. After that, he serenaded solo with the ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘The Mercy Seat’ – upright and commanding on his piano, his voice echoey and haunting without backing.
Ever the perfectionist, the generous, two-hour plus set was slightly splintered by restarts and impromptu creative license. He complained of feedback at the start of ‘Love Letter’ – a touching, nostalgic ode to a long-lost lover – back on the piano for the first-set closer ‘Jubilee Street’. It’s not often the newest song from the catalogue outshines the rest, but ‘Jubilee Street’ was a standout. The trance-like swell of the music was goosebump-inducing as the band kicked in and long-time collaborator and friend Warren Ellis’ guitar erupted into lightening-fast strums. Cave bellowed “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, look at me now!” and the crowd exploded.
“Fuck this is hard – song after song”, Cave chuckled to the distracting mosh pit during the encore, starting ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’ over again for maximum, shiver-down-the-spine impact before launching into ‘Babe, You Turn Me On’ – doing just that to the front row females.
Cave spent most of the night alternating between slinking up and down and pounding piano keys. He was at his most magnetic and interactive when teetering on the edge of the stage, teasing his lustful listeners with outstretched arms and lingering stares. He ended the night fittingly on ‘Push The Sky Away’, the song, album and film that has immortalised Cave as one of Australia’s most prolific live performers to date.