NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
(the first gig featuring Ed Kuepper)
Norwegian Wood Festival, Oslo, Norway
Friday June 12, 2009
By DON SIMON
The Bad Seeds have always been a lot more than merely a backing band for Nick Cave. From Barry Adamson to Blixa Bargeld and Warren Ellis, many Bad Seeds have had significant careers before joining and have continued to do so while a part of the band. But when it comes to track records, Ed Kuepper has a reputation that for many people matches - and for some even exceeds - Cave's.
Few bands before or since have done as much to energise Australian rock'n'roll as the Saints, few have pushed the boundaries of rock as far as The Laughing Clowns, and few guitar-slingers have had such prolific solo careers as Kuepper. For that matter, few guitarists in rock have Kuepper's breadth of technique or his ability to metamorphose playing styles.
So the news that Kuepper was joining the Bad Seeds for the European summer tour was greeted with plenty of excitement by those familiar with his remarkable body of work. Whether it turns out to be merely a brief guest slot or whether it will some day lead to a Bad Seeds record with Kuepper aiding and abetting songwriting is still a matter of conjecture.
The Bad Seeds' first show with Kuepper takes place in Norway's capital. If you can get past the unfeasibly expensive beer Oslo is a pretty rock'n'roll town, and it's on the radar of plenty of Australia's best bands. The New Christs, for example, delivered a storming set here just nine days ago. Hell, one Beasts of Bourbon gig in Oslo a couple of years back even led to an impromptu part-reformation of Tex Deadly and The Dum-Dums.
Norwegian Wood is a four-day open-air festival, but it's not your usual multi-stage affair with dozens of bands. They tend to have a headliner each night with a small supporting cast, making it more like four outdoor concerts in a row, with the main acts playing full sets rather than 60 minutes of festival crowd-pleasers. The night before Kuepper's Bad Seeds debut, Neil Young plays a triumphant show, and tonight Oslo-based Heroes & Zeros are the only support before Cave takes the stage.
It's fairly small as far as outdoor gigs go - maybe 8000 people tops, and the gentle slopes that surround the stage create a natural amphiteatre that would have your average ancient Greek playwright beaming in appreciation.
The weather is not the best when the Bad Seeds take the stage - 12 degrees Celsius and raining lightly - but Tupelo is a perfect opener in the circumstances. From the outset it's obvious that the band are enjoying themselves as much as the audience - compared to the last time Cave played Oslo with the Bad Seeds in May 2008, in the cavernous, atmosphere-less indoor arena Spektrum, this immediately feels like a far superior show, no slight against Mick Harvey intended.
"Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!" and "Red Right Hand" follow, and while the Cave purists may feel something is missing without Harvey, Kuepper is more than up to the task of filling a very idiosyncratic pair of shoes. It's an unusual experience, seeing Kuepper playing sideman - but it is also testament to Cave's performing prowess that he can dominate a stage with a Saint to the right of him and Dirty Three's manic multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis to his left. A tumultuous version of Deanna brings a rise from the crowd, and when it concludes a fan down the front asks a fresh-shaven Cave what has happened to the imposing moustache he sported on recent tours and in recent photo sessions.
"I know," Cave says ruefully, acknowledging the loss of said facial hair. "My wife shaved my moustache off the other night. She is now in a home for battered women. . . "
"Midnight Man" is next, then "The Ship Song" brings out the slow, gentle and sentimental side of Cave. By this time even the hardened Mick Harvey fans are forcing themselves to admit that the Bad Seeds can and do exist after the exit of perhaps their most important member after the bandleader himself. Kuepper fans hoping for some "SLSQ"-like transformation of guitar roles (let's face it, there can't be that many in Norway) are not appeased - despite some singular introductions by Kuepper on acoustic and electric guitars, the Bad Seeds remain essentially the same vehicle for Cave's songs that they were a year ago.
"The Mercy Seat" brings out the best of audience, band and singer, perhaps because it is one of the few songs that can stand next to films, novels and plays as a truly complete work of art.
"There She Goes", My Beautiful World" is sedate by comparison, but "The Weeping Song" and a fey "Papa Won't Leave You Henry" lift the game again. "Stagger Lee" is delivered in all its cussin' glory, as good a version as I have heard, and then the band walk off stage.
It's not just the fact that it's still light so late in these northern latitudes that has people looking at their watches and shaking their heads - it's barely 10pm, and Neil Young played until 11 the night before despite looking like he had been woken from a deep and satisying slumber when he began.
After a courteously short interval, Cave, Ellis,Conway Savage and Thomas Wydler return to the stage and begin "Into My Arms", and by the time it ends they have been joined by Kuepper and Jim Sclavunos (whose pink suit matches his colourful drums impeccably). "Get Ready for Love" comes before another short break, and the band return to see out the night with "We Call Upon the Author."
All in all, Kuepper's integration into the band is seamless, as you would expect from such a storied professional. I was lucky enough to have the chance to speak to Warren Ellis after the show, and he said it was one of the biggest shows Kuepper had ever played - as the new member of a long-standing, band Kuepper was actually nervous before the gig! Of couse, he needn't have worried.
There's still no word on whether Kuepper will continue to work with Cave and the Bad Seeds after this tour, but you get the feeling he'll be welcome to do so if he doesn't have his own projects to pursue. If he does, you get the feeling that finding another guitarist who fits in so well won't be an easy thing.