I’m going in for a hug with Nick Cave and I’m pretty sure he could use one. We all could, it’s been one of those nights. I’ve just crashed the stage with 50 wannabe Bad Seeds and somehow ended up as the awkward Courteney Cox, slow-dancing in the dark as the sun sets on Dublin. As the ambient synths of ‘Push the Sky’ Away waft off like a mist, Nick doesn’t leave me hanging – I get an embrace in his spindly arms, and that’s just something in my eye, I swear.
Overall, it’s been a bit tearful at Kilmainham – at one point a friend has to step aside for a glassy-eyed moment after a heartbreaking version of ‘Distant Sky’ and the tender piano ballad ‘Into My Arms’. There’s plenty of sweat too – more than once Cave asks if he can wipe his face on fans’ Bad Seeds t-shirts – garments that’ll never be anywhere near a wash basket, after a night like this.
There’s something genuinely magical happening when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play live these days. True, for decades Cave has been a mesmerising performer, a rousing orator consumed by the darkest heart of the blues, murder balladry and gothic fiction. But until a few years ago it felt like he was a fiery preacher man, exulting in the adulation of one of the most fervent fanbases in music. There’s less pointing of fingers now, and more reaching out, offering his hand. This communal force is summoned in the opener Jesus Alone, with its swirling synth abstractions and Cave chanting, “With my voice… I am calling you.” Within five minutes of coming onstage he’s on his knees clutching fingertips during a delicate ‘Magneto’, whispering, “come on, come closer”, with 5,000 caught in reverent silence between Warren Ellis’s minimal piano chords. I make this my tenth Cave gig, but this is the one.
The unguarded openness in the crowd is teased out in part by Cave’s special guest Patti Smith, with Dublin’s heatwave sunshine making amends for her 2015 visit to Kilmainham, in a rainstorm as Biblical as the one in the Bad Seeds classic Tupelo. She opens with her fist-up manifesto ‘The People Have the Power’, a sentiment threaded through her inspirational set that also includes ‘Horses’, ‘Because the Night’ and a frantic blues cover of Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’. Between songs, it feels like she’s delivering a poetic speech for the ages, rather than rock’n’roll banter. “We cannot roll over, we cannot let the darkness take over,” she proclaims. We need Patti Smith to stay this right kind of angry.
Opening act Whenyoung – selected by Cave as support for a second time – also do their bit to get the crowd onside, mixing their catchy 90s-flavoured alt-rock with an Irish trad interlude of She Moved Through the Fair, and a tribute to the late Dolores O’Riordain, with the Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’ ringing into the early evening sunshine.
The subject of death has never been far from Nick Cave’s work, but in recent years it’s explicitly been shot through with grief. In 2015 his 15-year-old son Arthur died tragically after falling off a cliff in Brighton, and Cave says playing live has “literally been lifesaving”. In the documentary One More Time With Feeling, he recalls weeping at the warmth of strangers consoling him in supermarkets, and wonders “What the hell would I do without Warren?,” his current band leader and shoulder to lean on.
This has led to a generosity and an all-consuming catharsis in his performance, whether he’s rolling among bodies, budging up beside Warren on the piano to share keys, or indeed leading me by the hand down the stage ramp and linking my arm with an equally stunned female devotee at the end of the set.
He’s also got his comic timing down. “It’s daylight, how terrifying,” he mutters when he strides on, and at one point he crawls up to a fan filming and gently brushes the phone away, without any malice at all.
Cave digs deep into the vaults for ‘Loverman’ and ‘Come Into My Sleep’, but he’s mostly pulling classic Bad Seeds aces out of his suit jacket sleeve. As always, ‘The Mercy Seat’ is an epic near-death experience, and during ‘From Her To Eternity’, it looks like Warren Ellis is trying to knock the grand piano through the stage floor. ‘Jubilee Street’ is a transcendent gear-changer, with Cave declaring, “I’m transforming, I’m glowing, I’m flying, look at me now.”
The defiant goths in the crowd sweating through their black Einsturzende Neubauten t-shirts are rewarded with a late-on rendition of ‘The Weeping Song’, the cult favourite by long-departed Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, that fades out and the bass rumble of ‘Stagger Lee’ oozes into our guts. This is the cue for the barriers to open, and a few dozen of us rub shoulders with Cave summoning his most grotesque character. On the Murder ballads album, “the bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee” only kills two people, but live Cave goes one better. He prowls the stage and summons the devil, who just ends up with four bullets in his head as Cave is knocked backwards by Bad Seeds cacophany.
‘Push the Sky Away’ is a serene parting gift, as Cave beckons us to sit down as he walks among us, some reaching out, some offering their t-shirts as facecloths, and one gently pulling up his trouser leg to see the colour of his socks – emerald green with sparkly thread. Sorry, that was me, I just couldn’t resist.