Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds deliver a powerful set as Skeleton Tree makes its Sydney debut

Marking the band’s first live appearances since 2014, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds hit the road earlier this month on an extensive tour of Australia and New Zealand, off the back of their sixteenth studio record, Skeleton Tree. Tonight this landed them in Sydney for the first of two shows at the ICC Sydney Theatre – the new 9,000 capacity room that has replaced the iconic Sydney Entertainment Centre.

The night opened with a beautifully dreamy, complex and mesmerizing performance from Australian experimental jazz trio The Necks. Delivering an utterly breathtaking and perhaps a little otherworldly sound, they barely stopped to take a breath as they jammed on the piano, drums and double bass. The 45 minute piece shifted from serene to turbulent, as Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton completely absorbed themselves, and the crowd, in their music.

Ambient music grew across the newly opened ICC as the sold out room anticipated Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ arrival – exasperated by the almost hour wait between sets. They arrived to a heroes welcome, however, particularly Warren Ellis and, naturally, Nick Cave, who started the set with a trio of tracks from the new, heart-wrenching record Skeleton Tree. First there was “Anthrocene”, which saw Cave’s vocals soar over the instrumentals and backing vocals of the seven Bad Seeds.

“Jesus Alone” followed, a spectacularly intense track, to the point of almost being uncomfortable, with the high pitched tone that pervades the song. But it’s everything it needed to be – and it proved to be one of the most powerful moments of the night. And then there was “Magneto”, the track which gave the recently released film One More Time With Feeling its name, which amplified the feelings of loss and death that pervade the new record.

The night saw Cave and his Bad Seeds perform Skeleton Tree almost in its entirety – only missing “Rings of Saturn”. What remained played out like something of a set of fan favourites, with “Higgs Boson Blues” serving as the bridge between the emotional tracks from their latest record, and their more intense earlier material. It also saw Cave move into the crowd – as he so often does – literally being held up by those in the front row. This was the sort of audience interaction that ran through the show, and fans would have noted much less banter than they may have experienced in earlier tours.

But this only gave them more time to deliver music, and in two hours they found room for a lot of great material. “Higgs” served as an early highlight, as did “From Her to Eternity” which followed – both of which utilising the incredible stage’s lighting to great effect. “Jubilee Street” and “The Mercy Seat” were expectedly brilliant, while perennial favourite “Red Right Hand” seemed to give Cave a chance to take a dig at incoming US President Donald Trump, referencing a man who would come to you in your Tweets (“you’ll see him on your tweets”) in his variation on the iconic lyrics.

“The Ship Song” and “Into My Arms” gave plenty of fans a special moment, but this was a night that belonged to the new material. Though surely the most sombre moments of the set, they played beautifully in front of the crowd, and their live treatment only highlighted the strength – and emotion – of the music. The main set finished with two such songs – “Distant Sky”, with Else Torp coming in on screen (and a powerful moment on the violin from Ellis), and the album’s namesake closing it out.

A five song encore was changed up slightly from the setlist as a fan’s request to perform “Jack The Ripper” was respected, in place of “Nobody’s Baby Now”. “Mermaids”, “Stagger Lee” (a personal favourite) and “People Ain’t No Good” also found their way into the encore, while “Push The Sky Away” ended things on a powerful note; the band continuing to perform after Cave had left the stage. And though we may have wanted another encore, one was not forthcoming.

This was a powerful set for so many reasons. The grandiose stage, in the giant, purpose built venue. The lyrics and compositions off the new record, amplified in intensity following the death of Cave’s son. The sound, cranked up to 11 for the group’s more bracing tracks – The “Stagger Lee”s and “Red Right Hand”s, surely leaving a fair few ear drums ringing.

The mix between the two flowed together beautifully, just as it always has for a band whose biggest hits have essentially been ballads (see: “Into My Arms”, which had the closest thing to a singalong for the entire night), yet have made a name for themselves with an often (wonderfully) abrasive live show. It’s this contrast, these contradictions that make Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds one of the world’s finest live bands. And 16 albums in, they’re not only continuing to prove this, but they’re getting better at it too.

Setlist:
Anthrocene
Jesus Alone
Magneto
Higgs Boson Blues
From Her to Eternity
Tupelo
Jubilee Street
The Ship Song
Into My Arms
Girl in Amber
I Need You
Red Right Hand
The Mercy Seat
Distant Sky
Skeleton Tree

Encore:
Mermaids
Jack The Ripper
Stagger Lee
People Ain’t No Good
Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play again tonight (January 21st) at the ICC in Sydney before continuing their tour around the county. For tickets and more details head HERE.

Contributions to this article by Lucy Inglis