Almanac Music: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds live in Ballarat

North Gardens, Lake Wendouree, 15/1/2017

Following personal tragedy, we will commonly seek solace in work. But what if that work is conducted in the most public of forums? And what if you happen to be Nick Cave? How to keep the often grisly circus that now surrounds celebrity death at bay? How does your family preserve itself?

This is the dilemma that has confronted Nick Cave since his son Arthur fatally fell from a cliff, on a summer’s day in 2015. Cave’s son met misfortune through a naïve experiment with drugs, the sort of cruel irony that might easily be found in one of Cave’s songs, but in truth, reflecting a long standing domestic reality. The wild, junky exhibitionist of the Birthday Party years is a distant, if vivid, memory. Cave has been a respectable man of letters, with sober(ish), disciplined work habits, for a very long time. As he sought to pick up the pieces, it was to those work habits that he was always likely to return.

Step one was the film, One More Time With Feeling. Notionally a document of the making of an album, it is predominantly a case study in dealing with trauma. Shot in stark, unsparing black and white, the film shows Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, struggling through their grief. An exercise that could have easily strayed into voyeurism succeeds in walking its fine line. The film stands up on many levels as a work in its own right. It is also a practical solution to a very real dilemma. With his candour to camera, Cave has surely said everything that needed saying.

Then there was the album that was already in progress when tragedy struck. Unsurprisingly, Skeleton Tree is a sombre affair. Since Warren Ellis replaced Mick Harvey as Cave’s principal collaborator, Bad Seeds albums have progressively resembled their collective soundtrack projects in texture. The Bad Seeds’ characteristic lurching, drunk-in-the-afternoon swagger has given way to layers of electronic ambiance as the platform for many songs. Considering the context, this inevitably lends the album an eerie, haunting atmosphere.

The next step on the journey back was to return to the road. It is back in Australia that Cave has chosen to commence his world tour. One suspects the opening shows in Hobart and Ballarat were scheduled to allow all concerned the chance to feel their way into proceedings. So it was that some several thousands congregated in a garden setting, on a clear, cool Ballarat evening. It felt a long way from the Crystal Ballroom.

Opening with a stripped-down Anthrocene, Cave and band followed with Jesus Alone. Written before the tragedy, its seemingly prophetic opening lines – ‘You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field’ – forever link the song to that event. Magneto completed an opening salvo from the new album.

A long, dreamlike Higgs Boson Blues wended its surrealistic way, before Cave lightened proceedings, sardonically recounting a sentimental journey he and Ellis had undertaken the previous day, as Ballarat-born Ellis reminisced about the places of his childhood. A certain local fish and chip shop should expect a spike in business.

Then it was back thirty years in time, as Cave ‘told us about a girl’, in From Her To Eternity. As the ominous rumble of Tupelo (originally from a record titled The First Born is Dead) cranked into gear, the show’s predominant themes were well established.

Following The Ship Song, Cave invited audience participation for Into My Arms – ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’ – and was clearly delighted by the response. Then it was back into harrowing emotional terrain, with Girl In Amber and I Need You.

Introducing ‘a song to suit these troubling times’, long time fave Red Right Hand drew a rousing response, despite Cave losing his way in the opening verse. The always epic Mercy Seat fed into the building crescendo of Jubilee Street, then the achingly beautiful Distant Sky, with a disembodied Else Torp contributing her sublime vocal via video projection. The main set was rounded out, naturally, by the title track from Skeleton Key.

Local curfews dictated a prompt return for encore, which began with a pleasingly ramshackle run through Nobody’s Baby Now, lifted by Ellis’ mournful violin solo. Just in case all this reflection was too much for some, Cave provided a dose of the old spit and vinegar, launching into his singular take on the old blues classic Stagger Lee, climaxing in its usual scarifying blend of cacophony and mayhem. Just to remind us that the sentimental and the macabre have always co-existed in his work, Push The Sky Away – ‘And some people say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll, Aw, but it gets you right down to your soul’ – saw us out into a night sky illuminated by a dazzling, bright moon.

Dedicated fans will note the absence of many classic favourites from this set list. This shouldn’t surprise. A greatest hits show was never on the cards for this tour. There was a slight feeling of cobwebs being blown out tonight – Cave forgot a couple of lyrics, the band felt its way into a couple of song arrangements – but overall, Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds amply reinforced why they have held our attention for nigh on 40 years. They have a collective force and charisma few Australian acts have ever matched.

Against many expectations, Nick Cave’s career has endured beyond most of his contemporaries. He has also outlived a son. No parent will ever really work that situation out. But in his efforts to work his way through, he is creating compelling art.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. bob.speechley says

    Excellent review – I’ve sent it to a mate who was there. I’m sorry that I wasn’t.

  2. John Butler says

    Cheers Bob,

    It was a glorious night by the lake.

  3. Andrew Fithall says

    Excellent write-up JB. It really was a wonderful show. And great to catch up with you briefly pre-show.

  4. Stephen Cooke says

    Splendid to hear, JB. I am looking forward to seeing him next Friday.

  5. David Rooke says

    My wife and I heard the concert before the concert (sound check) which really got our juices flowing. The concert from the front row was absolutely awesome; thank you Nick, thank you Bad Seeds, thank you Ballarat. I almost felt a small piece of cave grief during another memorable performance. He is still an absolute showman even when staring at family tragedy

  6. Went to the ADL gig. Brilliant version of ‘From Her to Eternity’ and great to see Mercy Seat live – again. Band tight and Marty and Warren getting better every time. 9/10.

  7. John Butler says

    Good to hear RD.

    Never underestimate Martyn P Casey. Warren goes alright too. :)


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