[The Canonisation of Camille O’Sullivan]
I am compelled to begin with a confession. I love Nick Cave. I have attended Bad Seeds’ concerts in New Zealand and overseas, I own most of his books and films, and I often find myself playing through the riffs Cave and Warren Ellis have created because they are just so damn good. As you can imagine, I was reasonably wary of a Cave concert without the man himself.
I knew of Camille O’Sullivan’s work from various YouTube videos and was aware of her roots in cabaret and theatrical performance so I hoped her focus on storytelling would help her traverse the vast worlds of Cave’s imagination. I also knew her voice to be richer that than many female artists with the ability to descend into rasp and shadows with promotion for this show accurately describing it as being ‘…as though her breath is soaked in paraffin – one spark, and the whole room would ignite.’ But the looming question on my mind was whether the songs stand up without Cave’s bitter gravel and evangelistic charisma to carry them or would Camille O’Sullivan’s powers, superbly magnetic as they are, collapse at the challenge of the Bad Seeds’ swirling world of lust and demons?
Speaking of demons, the show starts with a series of shadows marching across the stage to the sound of Cave’s baleful voice. Against a back drop of billowing blue-grey rococo clouds O’Sullivan appears with a black velvet cloak across her shoulders, smoke rising around her. She summons the audience with lines from ‘Skeleton Tree’:
I called out
I called out
Right across the sea
But the echo comes back empty
But the echo doesn’t come back empty. She grabs a chair and throws herself and the band into an excellently biting rendition of ‘God is in the House’. In the choruses, I could hear the choked whisper of audience members longing to sing. Actually, O’Sullivan barely sings herself, instead alternating between whispering and hurling bits of the story at us. She is accompanied by Feargal Murray (Piano), Paul Byrne (drums), Steve Fraser and Brett Adams (guitars) with Charlotte Glasson (violin, saxophone, musical saw), each instrument’s score stripped back to the bare essentials. At times O’Sullivan motions to the band to increase or decrease their tempo, or to alter the volume. She conducts much of the show in this way, constructing the arrangements on stage with a flick of her wrist. She even manipulates the lighting before us, asking for spotlights, or waving at the lighting desk to increase the brightness of a wash. She is at once singer and conductor, performer and director, merging rock concert, cabaret, and classical performance.
As she spat out the murderous ballad of Stagger Lee and threw the microphone around, O’Sullivan’s raw energy made me wonder if the show should have been performed in a less dignified venue. Then as she narrated these well-known stories from The Bad Seeds’ cannon (‘Jubilee Street’, ‘Red Right Hand’, ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Into My Arms’, among many others) O’Sullivan slowly rid herself of the cloak, then suit jacket, and finally both silver sparkly boots. She wound up teasing us that she would like to lose the pants as well but she ‘wasn’t that kind of girl’.
The arrangements of the songs were largely excellent, supporting the narratives with simplified melodic lines which, while still recognisable, became closer to accompaniments than competition for O’Sullivan’s exquisite voice. Jubilee Street suffered when pared back but Red Right Hand brought the house down. Shifting the focus from the guitars to the piano lent the performance the aforementioned classical bent and Feargal Murray (grand piano) deserves praise for balancing this quality with the integrity of the songs.
O’Sullivan is not competing with Cave, for the power of these songs lies not in the mouth of the performer but in the songs themselves. They exist as separate entities with characters as familiar as those of myths (the tall handsome man with the red right hand, Bee from Jubilee Street, the criminal of The Mercy Seat) and with truths as universal as those of the Parables.
Experiencing a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ song live is more akin to taking drugs or joining a cult than listening to a radio edit and, last night, even the gentler songs (Sad Waters, Ship Song, Skeleton Tree, Distant Sky, Girl in Amber) operated like altar calls. I could feel the floor moving as audience members tapped their feet and every few songs a scuffle would break out as some sinner tried to stand and those sitting around them would drag them back down. The audience was desperate but the oppressive grandeur of the Civic and the ire of the ushers deterred us from responding as we wanted to.
To perform the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds you have to be an actor, slipping from one character to the next with absolute conviction. O’Sullivan ranges from screaming lunatic, to abandoned lover, to angel, to the captivating devil himself, her voice moving between darkness and light, fire and smoke with ease. Nothing is held back. She burns just as bright as Cave, if not brighter. Where Cave longs to see the face of God, O’Sullivan danced last night with the ecstasy of one who has seen Him and lived to tell the tale.
Camille O’Sullivan ‘Cave’ played 13 March 2019 at the Auckland Arts Festival. Musical Arrangements by Camille O’Sullivan and Feargal Murray, Co-directed by Annie Ryan, with Lighting and AV Design by Joe Fletcher.