Cheryl, Darren (complete with his packet of Starburst), and I were at the cavernous O2 Arena on the Greenwich peninsula for our first time ever to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The venue inside the former Millennium Dome is so vast that the woman sat in the row in front of us was watching the gig through binoculars. I'd had huge reservations about attending a gig here. Would it be impersonal, corporate, and lacking in atmosphere? Would the music get lost in the rafters? Would the beer be massively over-priced?
It was certainly corporate. Rows of Nando's, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Garfunkel's, ASK, All Bar One, and even a Slug and Lettuce flank you as you work your way towards the airport style security and escalators that take you in to the venue proper where a bog standard pint of lager comes in at a mildly shocking £6.50. But, that aside, it was better than I expected. The seats were comfy, our view was good, and the sound was louder (and better) than I'd have expected at such a soulless place.
Since getting the tickets some time back I'd been telling myself that if Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, to my mind one of the greatest live acts there is, couldn't make the O2 work for them then, probably, nobody could. I'd knock the venue on the head.
I'd been a bit naïve. Of course Nick Cave could make this venue work for him. Nick Cave, it seems, can make any venue work for him. It's almost as if there's some kind of variant of Parkinson's Law in which Cave's presence expands to fill the space available. For all his kudos as an alternative and countercultural icon Cave is, at heart, a showman.
He sings, he dances, he wears suits, he even tells jokes - admittedly of the very dry variety. Even with nearly half the songs coming from this year's necessarily sombre Skeleton Tree album Cave and his truly international group of Bad Seeds (Switzerland, the UK, and the USA are represented alongside Australia) don't allow for any longueurs whatsoever. Which is remarkable as songs like Higgs Boson Blues and Jubilee Street can often expand to double their length to allow Cave to extemporise, or seemingly extemporise, ad-libs and throw himself into the adoring audience like a messiah.
When during Jesus Alone, very early on in proceedings, Cave intones 'with my voice I am calling you' the depth, clarity, and authority that voice carries leaves you in no doubt he means it. When, during an epic Red Right Hand, he claims 'you're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan' you wonder if he's talking about his relationship with his audience. Does he mean us?
The rows of outstretched female hands that greet him every time he steps near the front row seem like they'd be willing to undertake whatever relationship role he proposes them worthy of. Most offer outstretched palms to feel the passion of his heart beating although one iconoclast makes a cheeky grasp for Nick Cave's cock.
Lesser men may have been a bit put off by this but Cave's been doing this for years and it's unlikely that one unsolicited grope would mean much to a man who once fronted The Birthday Party, a band that seemed to thrive on controversy and whose concerts involved stage invaders urinating on the stage and drug-fuelled punch-ups.
There's way more love than hate in the room at a Cave gig these days. It's almost a religious experience. Though he delves back to the early eighties with Tupelo (from 1985's The Firstborn Is Dead), the post-punk, Pop Group influenced, squall of From Her To Eternity of the year before's debut album, and the timeless dignity of The Mercy Seat, new songs like the elegiac Girl in Amber and I Need You's utterly heartbroken tale of loss, desperation and desolation are more typical of the Cave experience du jour. Pianos, orchestration, dignity in the face of disaster, and a baritone voice that can sing to nearly 20,000 people and still make you think it's specially for you.
Both The Ship Song and The Weeping Song stand to show how Cave had mastered the art of the heartfelt ballad long ago. On 1997's The Boatman's Call he came close to perfecting it with one of the greatest opening salvos in album history. Sadly the band didn't play Lime Tree Arbour, People Ain't No Good, or Brompton Oratory (and if they played every classic song they've written we'd probably still be there) but Into My Arms was as romantic, graceful, and as awed in the presence of beauty as it's always been. It's enough to elicit simultaneous tears of joy and pain. Even Cheryl singing along in the seat next to me couldn't ruin it!
The only misfire of the gig was the introduction of a hologram of Danish soprano Else Torp during Distant Sky. It was a minor one and it wasn't terrible but came across as a bit of a novelty - not something that Nick Cave tends to lend himself to. He'll happily joke with the audience (after a heckle of 'your wife's a fox' he dedicates a song to 'my wife, the fox') and, during an absolutely stunning, and stunningly violent and foul mouthed, rendition of Stagger Lee as encore, invites people on to the stage. He puts his arm round a topless dude and tells another guy in a "I HEART TAKE THAT" t-shirt that he's got sixteen boxes of the same t-shirt at home.
During the more intense moments of Higgs Boson Blues and Red Right Hand, Cave seems to have internalised everything he's seen, everything he's been through, everyone he's loved, and everyone he's lost and now, on stage, it's all spilling out at a frightening rate. If it can seem like a huge, primal, barely containable train of thought it's anything but. We've learnt, in recent years, that Cave works hard. The energy of these songs has been sweated over - and sculpted with just as much devotion as the ballads. An utterly perfunctory guest appearance by Bobby Gillespie towards the end of the night throws into sharp relief the difference between a rigorous Bad Seeds gig and a shambolic Primal Scream one.
You can watch a Nick Cave gig through binoculars if you want. You'll get a better view of his face. But it doesn't really matter if you're watching a distant silhouette working the stage like the old master he is, counting the well earned lines on his face on the big screen, or up the front feeling his heart boom (or, indeed, feeling his cock). Because the power of his voice, the power of the band that back him, the skill of his song writing, and the deep wells of passion for humanity that underpin this whole venture, his whole existence, will reach you anyway. You can sit in a comfy chair with an overpriced pint of lager and still feel like you've undergone a deeply emotional experience - one you probably wouldn't have got in the Slug & Lettuce. Nick Cave worked the O2, alright.