Cave men

Joe Costello witnesses Nick Cave & Warren Ellis at Symphony Hall.

I’m a relative newcomer to Nick Cave. I had his card marked as just some spooky old goth in my teenage years and it wasn’t until 2007’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! that I actually started paying attention. Since then, I’ve seen him perform four times and it has been a distinctly different experience each time, from garage rock at the old Birmingham Academy, arena anthems in 2017, a solo show at the piano with audience Q&A and requests in 2019 and now this, his first performances with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis.

Ellis mostly plays what I can only describe as a tiny keyboard resting on his lap, apart from a couple of outings for his violin and flute are joined by three backing singers and the wonderfully named multi-instrumentalist Johnny Hostile on bass, keyboards and sparingly used drums. The next two hours were made up almost exclusively of material from 2019’s ethereal and ambient Ghosteen and the recently released Carnage.

This was all a considerable contrast to a recent outing of mine but none the poorer for it. The hits from the back catalogue, such as they were, such as Into My Arms, Breathless and a cover of T-Rex’s Cosmic Dancer were all of a low key nature, in keeping with the rest of the setlist and songs from the Peaky Blinders soundtrack would have been out of place in this setting.

A constant surprise in the live experience, for me at least, is the humour on display. A request for a particular song is fended off with “We could do that. But we’re not going to,” while an audience member counting him in as he is about to start the evening’s final song Ghosteen Speaks is met with a chuckle and “Don’t make this any more complicated than it already is.” Although a seated venue, by the end of the evening a small knot of devotees has gathered at the front of the stage to commune more personally.

A full band tour scheduled for last spring was a casualty of Covid and I get the impression that the stripped down nature of on stage personnel was perhaps partly driven by a wish to maintain distance and minimise risk. I also get the impression of performers with a need to perform and doing so at their earliest opportunity and deriving as much pleasure and release from the occasion as the audience did.