Nick Cave and Warren Ellis at The Dome on the last night of the tour. Do we need to write anything else? Already you know it was one of those “I was there” nights.
Watching Cave in Brighton is a lovely mix of celebratory and melancholy. It’s a hometown gig, We’re with him. We know his story, we know his journey. It’s fine – this is his place now. The sadness and torment that undercuts so much of his work tempered by warmth band joy.
Tonight was very much a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis gig, not a Bad Seeds gig, largely focusing on their last two albums. Coming as it did so soon after the death of Cave’s son Arthur, 2016’s Skeleton Tree was seen to be the response, but that album was largely written before. The following album, Ghosteen, was more the response. A double album, you can’t escape the feeling that the clue is in the title. Ghost teen.
They’re more meditations than songs, mood pieces that create a feeling, an emotional landscape for Cave’s words. The album was never toured because of Covid and, locked down, Cave and Ellis recorded the visceral Carnage, an album Cave described on his website as “a brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe”.
Opening with three tracks from Ghosteen – Spinning Song, Bright Horses and Night Raid – the rapturous welcome is cut dead as Cave prowls the stage, his dark sonorous baritone somewhere between singing and talking these songs of faith and devotion. Ellis sits stage right, a small keyboard on his lap creating wave upon wave of rumbling drone, oppressive layers of swirling, angry harmonium.
Aside from a grand piano the size of a small country, the stage is simple, just Cave, Ellis, three backing singers and, at the back, French multi-instrumentalist Johnny Hostile who, despite sounding like he should be in a 1977 punk band, fills the gaps unobtrusively alternating between guitar, bass and drums.
The whole, particularly singers Wendy Rose, Janet Rasmus and T Jae Cole creates a mood redolent of the gospel churches he’s so in thrall to, taking him nearer to that spirit of gospel than he’s ever been. At one point, during the ecstatic rapture of Hand Of God, the extraordinary opening track from Carnage, Cave dropped to his knees, the song teetering on the edge of collapse as Ellis dropped his keyboard and threw his arms in the air.
Ellis is the perfect foil. Where Cave is all razor sharp elegance in trademark skinny black suit and white shirt, Ellis is wild, dishevelled. Cave is controlled, letting the emotion flow through the songs and the words. Ellis flails and bounces, waves, flows. Andrew Dominik, who worked on Ghosteen, said “Nick is more into structure and whether or not a piece of music sounds good. Warren doesn’t give a fuck about anything except how a piece of music feels” and that sounds about right.
On a night where the night was the highlight, it seems churlish to pick out particular moments, particular songs, but let’s be churlish… A cover of T.Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, seen last year on his “In Conversation” tour, featured Ellis almost but not quite losing a battle with his violin, I Need You from Skeleton Tree, crowd-pleasing encores of Henry Lee and Hollywood, the momentous climax to Ghosteen, and inevitably but beautifully, Into My Arms and into the night.