Music review: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Playhouse, Edinburgh

Nick Cave fans have had to wait a long time to hear 2019’s Ghosteen album live, and this Edinburgh performance didn’t disappoint, writes David Pollock

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

“Thank you very much for coming out and trying to keep this thing going, for risking life and limb,” sighed Nick Cave, voice ever-poised between reassurance and menacing threat. “We’re learning how to be a band again.”

His full band isn’t quite back together yet, however. With plans to tour Ghosteen, 2019’s 17th record with the Bad Seeds, skewered by the pandemic, this return to live business has been adapted for Cave and his closest musical collaborator Warren Ellis, plus one multi-instrumentalist and three backing singers.

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    The pair’s debut album as a duo, the scratch lockdown recording Carnage, was released earlier this year, and the set was largely drawn from it and Ghosteen. While many in the crowd might have hoped for the full greatest hits to celebrate a return to normality, Cave has clearly seen the last 18 months more as a speedbump on his long creative journey.

    Ghosteen, after all, was his first full album since the death of his son Arthur in 2015, and its performance felt like part of an ongoing exorcism of grief. As the spindly Cave hollered magnificently and occasionally took his place behind the piano, and the wildly-bearded Ellis sat with a keyboard on his lap, its title song and the closing Ghosteen Speaks sounded like an attempt to commune with the other side.

    The Carnage material dragged us back to the shared grief and anger of the last year-and-a-half. White Elephant poked the nest of racism and entitlement over a surging electronic beat while Albuquerque gently mourned our collective isolation. “We won’t get to Albuquerque, darling, anytime this year,” goes the first line of the final verse, “unless I dream you there” – except Cave switched out the place name for “Edinburgh” and the crowd roared.

    There were nuggets for the devotees – God is in the House, Henry Lee, a typically breathtaking Into My Arms, a cover of T-Rex’s Cosmic Dancer. We needed something special to take our minds off being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers again, and we got it.

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