The astonishing decor of The Civic Theatre was rocked last night with Camille O’Sullivan’s programme of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds music as part of the Auckland Arts Festival 2019. Irish-French chanteuse O’Sullivan and her band interpreted the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with dark flair.
Hearing O’Sullivan was like witnessing a reincarnation of the most extraordinary female vocalists. At times she had the storyteller’s talent of Patti Smith, the timbre of Marianne Faithful, the deadpan of Nico and then the jet-engines started to roar and we got a touch of Janis Joplin.
Good grief, this singer could pull anything out of the hat. Her ability to create expression seemed infinite.
But where was her ultimate truth? In her own words from a television interview a few years ago, “If you’re not a singer-songwriter and you’re up there [on stage], then you’d better be up there for a reason, you’d better really inhabit it, really interpret it”. True enough, the spontaneous genius of creating a song as if on the spot is something O’Sullivan could totally own. But, she didn’t always.
From the start, there were mixed messages. There is a singer you might expect to hear in the intimacy of the Spiegeltent. And yet there she was in the cavernous Colossus of The Civic. She was creating a programme of songs yet she enters with backlighting, billows of smoke and projections of boiling clouds. Did I book for Def Leppard? Not only the setting but the sound set up. Too. Darned. Loud. It wasn’t Spark Arena, we could have heard the music almost better if the guitar hadn’t been dialled up to the max. With this kind of sound set up, one is more often confronted than cajoled.
Yet O’Sullivan’s relationship with pianist/keyboardist Feargal Murray was sublime. Why not a whole evening of just voice and piano? Their mesh and artistry were flawless. However exciting it was to hear the band including Paul Byrne (drums), Steve Fraser and Brett Adams (guitars) with Charlotte Glasson (violin, saxophone, musical saw) cranking into full flight, does it actually serve the songs? Of course, there are some big sounds to draw from in the Bad Seeds catalogue (excuse the pun), after all, we’re talking about the Big Daddy of The Birthday Party. The rockier band sound was used to powerful effect however in Stagger Lee and O’Sullivan’s snarls told the story with perfect bitter bite. But then … microphone whirling??
One gets the feeling that with a touch of the Irish charm, this performer can do anything she wants, and she does. She leans in to confide in her audience, “My Lovelies”, confessing to wearing uncomfortable pants. She sheds cloak, jacket and even kicks off her shoes in a rebellious statement. She conjures up more light, gestures impatiently at the band to give her more and then less and then much more! She even holds a semi-private dialogue with a gentleman in row 2.
It was wonderful to hear such Cave classics as Into My Arms and Right Red Hand. A beautiful Sad Waters with spare piano over which O’Sullivan’s melancholic voice wandered, sung with poetry and nuance that it brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s delivery. And her signature song, Ship Song finished the night with such sweet intensity, not even needing the arena-rock-style band instrumental.
The audience seemed happy and gave a standing ovation. O’Sullivan readily came back to deliver Skeleton Tree with sheer brilliance, looking straight out at the crowd “But the echo comes back empty, nothing is for free”. Following that, with a shockingly fragile Girl In Amber, it seemed the spirit of Nick Cave was up there in female form.