When it was first announced that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were going to play at the Manchester Arena rather than the Apollo, it seemed like a bad decision. How could Skeleton Tree’s spare, intimate and emotionally raw songs possibly work in the cavernous Arena, best suited to Disney On Ice shows and pop concerts?
But then one of those pop concerts ended in horror and heartbreak, and this, one of the first events held there since the reopening, felt like a perfect part of the healing process for the venue, the city and quite possibly for Nick Cave himself. It was a funny, sad, cathartic and occasionally jaw-dropping night. And, most importantly of all, it was just another pop concert.
There was certainly no mistaking that things have changed at the Arena from the moment fans arrived there. What happened in May has had a lasting impact on the security measures, which meant that queues to get in were snaking around the building and Victoria Station long after the advertised start time of 8pm, with the show delayed half an hour to make sure people got in.
The old box office area, where 22 happy, excited souls were killed only four months ago, has been transformed both visually and functionally, with airport-style scanners and a huge security presence. The terrorists may never win, but they’ve certainly changed the experience of going to gigs in Manchester for the immediate future.
The emotional resonance of hearing songs that were either inspired by – or at least recorded in the aftermath of – Cave losing his son Arthur while in a room where children of a similar (and younger) age spent their last hours is hard to shake, but unsurprisingly the man himself never makes direct reference to either tragedy.
The closest he gets is a heartfelt introduction to Into My Arms, where he talks about it being a special venue and how grateful he and the band were to be there. It’s the kind of thing you hear all the time at gigs, but the subtext was clear and the lengthy applause showed that the crowd understood.
Into The Music
Cave isn’t one for mawkish sentiment, so anything more explicit would have felt out of place. The emotion came through the music, particularly those from Skeleton Tree, which sounded even more affecting in person than on record. Girl In Amber was backdropped with some haunting images of his wife Susie Blick from the documentary One More Time With Feeling, while Danish singer Else Torp appears like a giant on screen for her vocals in the beautiful Distant Sky.
That was the point at which I did actually cry.
But there was so much more to this show than sadness. At times, Cave and his Bad Seeds created a white noise of fury and intensity that the Arena can barely have seen in some of its heaviest gigs, particularly on older tracks like From Her To Eternity and an epic run-through of Mercy Seat, while newer songs like Jubilee Street and Higgs Boson Blues also explode into life, with Cave throwing himself around the stage and into the crowd like a man who hasn’t just turned 60.
The contrasts between the joyous noise and the emotional undercurrents were probably best summed up by the final two songs of the encore. During the viciously funny Stagger Lee, Cave invited and helped up about fifty members of the crowd onto the stage, who danced and sang with him, making a mockery of the earlier security checkpoints.
For the hushed finale of Push The Sky Away, he beckoned them all to sit down apart from a young boy with a Bad Seed t-shirt on, who seemed to know all the songs word-for-word (yes, even Stagger Lee). Cave ended the show hand in hand with this boy, both literally pushing the sky away, and in the context of the album, the venue and everything else, it was a sight that took the breath away and made the heart soar.
It was that kind of night and it was perfect.