Australian Carnage: Live at the Sydney Opera House (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) – music review

“This is a joyful song,” says Nick Cave by way of introduction to “Breathless,” a song from the 2004 double album release with his full band, The Bad Seed, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. But then in jest he adds, “So make the f*king most of it… cause it’s downhill from…” and then laughs unable to complete the thought. But Cave is playing to a friendly, hometown audience that very likely knows what they are in for when they bought tickets to see Cave with his long-time bandmate, and collaborator Warren Ellis, as the duo released the 2021 album, Carnage. This live album was recorded over the course of a three night stand in the Sydney Opera House at the conclusion of their Australian tour late in 2022.

Cave and multi-instrumentalist Ellis, who first played violin on the 1993 release Let Love In before joining the Bad Seeds, co-producing with Cave, and playing together as Grinderman, and composing and recording numerous movie and TV soundtracks, were joined by Colin Greenwood of Radiohead on bass, Bad Seed drummer and keyboards Larry Mullins, and a trio of background vocalists—Wendi Rose, Janet Ramus, and T Jae Cole, to flesh out their musical imaginings for a full band live sound. With a setlist drawn largely from their two most recent studio albums, Carnage and Ghosteen, the swelling sounds of synthesizers, the transcendent chorus of harmony vocalists, and Ellis’ violin, flute and other stringed instruments, all provided ample support for Cave’s spirited live vocals, and often emotional delivery.

Greeting the Sydney audience on the last night of the tour after the opening number, “Spinning Song,” about the original rock & roll star Elvis, Cave invited the crowd to “go wild, tear the Sydney Opera House to pieces, and rip up the seats, and stuff like that…” Then he announces that “Warren is going to sing this song…” to which Ellis responds to the warm shouts, “my people,” before the lush organ-like keys and high soaring vocal set the song’s grim tone of “Bright Horses.” As the equally haunted “Night Raid” begins, the audience offers a playful sound like they’re riding a rollercoaster over a swell after each musical phrase, to which Cave offers “oh, the humility.” No doubt this brief collision of orientations is bound to follow Cave’s tours going forward unless he reconvenes the full Bad Seed band, and commits to playing more of the old school rockers, as his recent recordings for quite legit reasons tend toward the more somber, leaving no dark corner unturned, but folk usually show up to a live show anticipating having a good time, sometimes significantly lubricated to add to that expectation. And clearly, around the edges of some of their heavier material, it’s clear that Cave and Ellis are having a good time, as are the crowd.

When Cave introduces the latest album’s title track, “Carnage,” he declares, “this song was written for Sydney,” then acknowledges the long-time showbiz trope, “it really was, do you believe me? It sounds like I say that in every town I go to…” which insights some in the crowd to yell out “Castlemaine.” To which Cave responds, “I know… that’s one of the great humiliations of this tour, I got Newcastle mixed up with Castlemaine, and they didn’t like that. We’re trying to live that down now, but I’m an older man now, things aren’t as easy as they used to be…” Then, proving he does indeed have his wits about him, and still make a joke, adds, “So, Melbourne, this is for you guys.”

Highlights abound throughout the 18 tracks included, if you happen to be a fan of these recent releases. In “White Elephant,” Cave gets into character chanting the anger and frustration that many felt in response to George Floyd’s murder on the streets of Minneapolis by the police. Mid-set there’s a lovely trio of songs, “Waiting for You,” followed by “I Need You,” which is the one song that goes back to Skeleton Tree, believed to be written in response to his teenage son’s death, and a cover of the T. Rex song, “Cosmic Dancer.” “Hand of God,” a highlight from Carnage gets a spirited delivery, while “Hollywood” get the expansive attention in deserves, as Cave mourns that “there’s little room for wonder now.”

Then late in the set Cave explains that when they play “Balcony Man,” “this thing happens all over the world, overseas, when I sing the word ‘balcony,’ the people in the balcony lose their fucking shit. It sounds like a dumb idea, but they’re doing it all over the world.” After egging the audience on, he takes it out for a test run, but unimpressed by the response, Cave eggs them on further, “they do it louder than that, overseas,” which of course takes things to the next level, and continue throughout the song.

As with any concert, there are always songs you hope to hear when you see a beloved artist live, so it’s worth noting that there were 5 other songs performed at those Sydney shows that are not included here, all from the extensive Bad Seeds catalog: “Henry Lee,” “The Weeping Song,” “The Ship Song.” “Jubilee Street,” and my favorite of the bunch, that appeared as a final second encore, “Into My Arms.” In that regard, there will be an 8-song vinyl version released in December.

Concert albums like this serve a variety of functions, one being a memento for those who enjoyed the live show in person, and another for those of us who were not able to get to a live show. To that end, Cave is now on a solo tour of the states with Colin Greenwood in tow, but the only way to hear performance of this particular tour with Warren Ellis is here on Australian Carnage, which captures Cave & Co. in very strong form, delivering performances quite worthy of the price of admission. Held together, this concert album is true triumph.

Brian Q. Newcomb
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