Nick Cave & Warren Ellis in Poole

I was lucky enough to catch the very first night of the Nick Cave & Warren Ellis tour a couple of nights ago, at The Lighthouse in Poole.

I think they’ve gathered here for me.

Ghosteen Speaks

Nick looked delighted to be walking back on stage after so long, and it was also significant as the live debut of most of the Carnage and Ghosteen songs. Those all worked beautifully with a trio of versatile backing singers – Wendi Rose (who first sang with Nick on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus 17 years ago), T Jae Cole and Janet Ramus. On Lavender Fields they were heavenly, on Leviathan they were mesmeric. On an especially wild Hand of God they became some ferocious, chanting chimera, goaded into it by Warren’s outstretched hands and wiggling elbows. That left the crowd (and possibly Nick himself) astonished.

During 14 or so minutes of Hollywood, the devastating finale to Ghosteen, it felt like a spell was being lifted. But before we were released from the grip of grief into the night, the clock rolled back two decades and we got one of my all-time favourites, Darker With The Day. For this, Warren finally picked up his violin, after having been ‘chained to a synth’ for most of the evening. Nick made him play the solo through twice.

I couldn’t have imagined a more special return to live music, after all this.

And what doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier…

Balcony Man

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue

Mark Mordue was at work on a complete biography of Nick Cave when events in both of their lives around 2015 caused the ambitious project to fizzle out. ‘I’m a different person now,’ Cave said, seeming to draw a line under his long-standing co-operation. Mordue has since returned to his extensive research, but now he zooms in on Cave’s formative years. Boy On Fire looks in detail at every fad and phase, every side of Cave that can be traced prior to him leaving Australia in February 1980. These include the tearaway schoolboy, the dreaming junkie, the tyrannical frontman and the sensitive young soul blindsided by the death of his father. There are other dimensions to the young Nick we might not immediately recognise.

Mordue finds so much that connects with the Nick Cave of 2021, including how he uses imagination to reckon with personal tragedy. In fact, everything is grist to his mill. His early collaborator and girlfriend Anita Lane once told him, ‘If you were hit by a car, you’d reach for your pencil and try to write what it was like before you died.’

For fans it’s thrilling to read of moments and images from Cave’s early days that will surface in his songs years, even decades, later. A very particular stretch of the Ovens River flows from Wangaratta into multiple lyrics, most notably Sad Waters. The hopeful wisdom of Colin Cave underpins Nature Boy.

My father said, don’t look away
You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now
He said, that in the end it is beauty
That is going to save the world, now

A good music bio has you constantly looking up the tracks and bands it mentions. This one also directs you toward painters (Matthias Grünewald, Egon Schiele, Sidney Nolan, the Dadaists) and writers (Dostoevsky, Alfred Jarry, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor). It’s a soup of reference that thickens as Cave assimilates culture like there’s no tomorrow, and feeds it all back into his nascent band, The Boys Next Door.

Mordue has aimed for Boy On Fire to show Cave at the centre of ‘a kaleidoscope of people and stories’. He’s particularly strong on the subculture that congregated in the Crystal Ballroom (a legendary venue in St Kilda, then Melbourne’s bohemian-attracting red light district) to watch post-punk bands in the late 70s.

In one interview excerpt, Brownyn Bonney provides a perceptive account of why it is Nick Cave who became a star, whilst other gifted artists from the time faded into obscurity. She carefully lists all the crucial things that he possessed, and notes that ‘everyone else lacked two or three of those ingredients’. In a single page, she threatens to render the rest of the book redundant, so complete is her sense of the young Cave, and so neatly does it tally with the same artist who has just put out Carnage at 63. Work ethic is again and again pinpointed by Cave’s contemporaries as his great advantage. ‘He works like a demon. He deserves his success,’ insists Bonney. In issue #138 of The Red Hand Files, Cave concurs that it’s mainly that surfeit of sheer energy – ‘a shameless and pathological belief in my own awesomeness’ – that has sustained his long career, above any talent he may have had.

Other participants in the scene that whirled around The Boys Next Door and their clique are more blunt in their assessment, less prepared to balance Cave’s virtues against his vices. ‘I thought they were dickheads,’ remarks fashion designer Alannah Hill.

The ‘Shivers’ music video. Director Paul Goldman remembers Nick Cave insisted on having a mirror attached to the camera so that he could see himself, ‘great narcissist that he is.’

The books ends with Cave and his cohort aboard a flight to London, to them the promised land of indie music, as the 80s dawn. During the flight they elect to change their name to The Birthday Party. I was reminded of Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles bio, which also chooses to stop with its subject airborne and on the cusp of something bigger (the soon-to-be Fab Four flying home from Hamburg for the last time, in December 1962).

If Mordue goes beyond that long-haul cliffhanger and does continue with his epic biography of Cave after all, there are four full decades of restless creativity left to cover, as Cave moves through multiple cities and scenes, collects and discards muses and collaborators, and emerges from addictions and complex private torments. It’s a staggering challenge. Such is the artistic depth and international breadth of that story, the ongoing work could end up akin to John Richardson’s all-consuming multi-volume biography of his friend Picasso. But Boy on Fire‘s brief flashes forward into the 2000s only confirm that Mordue is the man to document the Bad Seeds years — the brilliant biographer Nick Cave deserves.

McCartney III

As if the Get Back sneak peek wasn’t enough Beatley joy for one day, my copy of McCartney III landed on the doormat. It’s an album I’d expected long before we had heard an official peep about it, as it’s hard to imagine what else Paul McCartney would do when plunged into lockdown other than get into the studio, and let the music flow. He’s responded to previous, more personal crises – the collapses of The Beatles and of Wings – with truly solo albums on which he played every instrument, experimented with technology, indulged all sorts of weird whims, and largely baffled music critics.

Therefore it wasn’t a great surprise to learn a third such album was on the way – yes, fuelled by hummus-and-Marmite bagels (his favoured recording session snack, as discussed on The Adam Buxton Podcast), McCartney had made the most of ‘rockdown’ and got busy in his personal studio at Hog Hill Mill.

I avoided much of the pre-release hype, so that I’d not heard a note of McCartney III ’til I could pop my headphones and give it the undivided attention that I feel a new record from the great man deserves.

It’s perhaps a little early for me to pick favourite tracks or say where it falls in the complex hierarchy of solo Macca. At a push, I’ll choose The Kiss of Venus as my highlight – it’s a delicate cosmic love song that could have been equally at home on the White Album or Venus and Mars, but works so well at the top of 78-year-old Paul’s vocal range, croaks and all.

The Kiss of Venus

My main initial impression is that the album is as ‘pure Paul’ as I’d hoped, a true sequel to McCartney and McCartney II, on which he once again pushes himself. For instance, he throws everything at the moody 8-minute centrepiece Deep Deep Feeling, chasing down every last harmonic idea and rhythmic quirk, ever more curious about the crazy sounds he can conjure all on his own. That’s all driven by the same restless musical instinct that resulted in the bonkers Temporary Secretary (and the even more bonkers Check My Machine) back in 1980. The freewheeling lead guitar on Lavatory Lil is executed with the same boyish glee as the noodling on Oo You and Momma Miss America fifty years ago. The bluesy Women and Wives is a whole new twist on Paul’s Fats Domino impression – both unlike anything he has attempted before, and unmistakably McCartney. A treasured upright bass (the very same Kay Maestro M-1 played by Bill Black on early Elvis recordings!) is put to good use here. In the closing seconds of the song, I can picture Paul beaming as he gives the string a final emphatic thump and slides lazily up the neck.

Women and Wives

The album concludes with When Winter Comes, a gorgeous, wistful acoustic piece that lists tasks to be completed around the farm.

Must fix the fence by the acre plot
Two young foxes have been nosing around
The lambs and the chickens won’t feel safe
Until it’s done

When Winter Comes
When Winter Comes

With its percussive acoustic playing and bucolic feel, it’s a sister song to Calico Skies. Lyrically it harks even further back, to the early 70s when Paul and Linda were raising a young family on their farm near the Mull of Kintyre. It’s a mark of an incredible songwriter that he can sit on a song this perfectly lovely for nearly 30 years. With its message of taking care for and pleasure in nature as the world changes around you, perhaps there’s no better time for Paul to finally release it.

Interesting McCartney III links

Twitter Listening Party
Tim Burgess’ Twitter Listening Party for McCartney III is available as a replay – Paul chips in with notes about the inspiration and gear behind each track and it’s a fun way to listen along.

The making of McCartney III
This is really for gear nerds like me, but if you want to know a little more about Paul’s Studer J37 tape machine or the signal path for his bass parts, this is gold – an extended interview with the engineer and technical manager at his studio, with plenty of new insights into his process.

The Adam Buxton Podcast
A typically great interview by Dr Buckles, ranging from Paul’s unexpected penchant for reality TV like American Pickers, to his opinions on Bob Dylan’s live act.

64 reasons to celebrate Paul McCartney
This essay by Ian Leslie is better than most books on McCartney, drawing on all kinds of sources to try and understand his ‘ordinary genius’. There’s bound to be something in here that’s news to you, or that sends you hurrying back to a particular album or song.

Get Back sneak peek

Yesterday morning, Peter Jackson shared a sneak peek montage ahead of next year’s Get Back film – 5 minutes of previously unseen footage from The Beatles’ early 1969 sessions, with every second radiating the joy that only the Fab Four can muster. The perfect thing to brighten a gloomy midwinter.

Boots No. 2

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings aren’t known for being especially prolific. I’ve always imagined that their rural American music, with its deceptively simple song structures and transcendental, timeless feel, takes time to perfect. And the precious few albums that have emerged in the past decade or so have indeed been perfect.

That’s why the bounty of Welch/Rawlings releases in 2020 has been such a welcome surprise. With their lives upturned more than most – first by a tornado that hit East Nashville back in March and didn’t spare their recording space, then by the pandemic – the couple initially responded with a covers album, All The Good Times Are Gone, recorded on their couch. But the tornado scared them into releasing some of the old material they’d come so close to losing, and over the autumn they treated us to three volumes of Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs.

Whereas Boots No. 1 was essentially the ‘making of’ Welch’s 1996 debut Revival, with lots of fascinating demo and alternate versions, most of the 48 songs that make up Boots No. 2 haven’t been heard at all before. They date back to a long weekend’s songwriting flurry around 2002, after which they were largely forgotten. A couple (One Little Song and Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor) turned up in different forms on Soul Journey. The Dylanesque Picasso has featured regularly in Welch’s live shows over the years. Solomon Burke cut Valley of Tears. And Changing Ground will be remembered by anyone who watched the 2012-2018 country music soap opera Nashville (I did, until the bitter end).

But the majority are new to us, and unlike so many other artists’ vault-clearing exercises, the quality is impeccable. There’s not a single track here that feels throwaway, that you wouldn’t want to return to – even the joke songs have hidden depths. And nothing’s been overthought, because clearly there wasn’t time. The duo’s instinct for precisely when to leave a song alone is too good, anyway.

The songs that stick with me are the concise character studies, a rich seam for Welch as far back as Orphan Girl. It’s astonishing how, in a couple of short verses, she can conjure a believable person with hopes and fears that feel real. She does more on a single lyric sheet than some novels manage in 900 pages. There’s the eccentric Strange Isabella who perplexes everyone with her unseasonal clothing and untied shoes. We meet three lost souls walking the harsh Streets of St. Paul. The protagonist of Rambling Blade is a murderer reflecting on their sinful life and their few virtues as they prepare for the gallows. With haunting lines like ‘Wear my scars/white as lace’, Johnny Cash would have covered it in a heartbeat, and Nick Cave would kill to have written it. Or perhaps I’ve got that the wrong way round.

There’s also a gospel strand – the Bible gets the equivalent of rave Goodreads review in Mighty Good Book (‘Have you ever read it for yourself?’) and You Only Have Your Soul warns of the devil’s temptations, or perhaps the trappings of fame (‘Be careful what you sign on the line’). There’s more supreme country-soul in the likes of Roll On, yet another ready-made standard. And they let their hair down on stuff like the near-gibberish rockabilly come-on Wella Hella and the party-starting Back Turn And Swing.

Wella Hella

You’ll have your own favourites as you delve into this stuff, but Boots No. 2 has been hands-down my musical highlight of 2020. So thanks, Gill and Dave, for dusting off your lost songs and sharing them – they’re the gift that keeps giving.

Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.

For a lot more insight into this amazing duo, I recommend Hanif Abdurraqib’s recent New York Times piece: How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism.