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The Magic of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ Creative Partnership

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis will showcase the imaginative integrity of their creative partnership in two intimate, limited capacity shows at Victoria’s Hanging Rock this November.

Charlie Gray

Nick Cave is generally regarded as a rock’n’roll maverick—an artist whose deviant personality is underpinned by a singular artistic vision. But since his days at Caulfield Grammar School in the 1970s, Cave’s output has relied, to an extent, on the input of various creative foils. 

Prominent offsiders from Cave’s career include Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey, Anita Lane and Blixa Bargeld. Cave has often commented on how these individuals possessed greater talent than he did, and even if you disagree, there’s no doubt Cave’s trademark fearlessness would lack some of its oomph were it not for his many willing and committed collaborators. The latest in this line of Cave’s co-conspirators is Warren Ellis.

The fire lit by Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis started playing with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in the mid 1990s. Ellis’ main band, the Dirty Three, were known for wild improvisational performances that injected a bit of punk rock radicalism into loosely structured instrumental music. Ellis added violin to the Bad Seeds albums, Let Love In (1994) and Murder Ballads (1996), but his first record as a full-time member was 1997’s Boatman’s Call—a classic, to be sure, but also one of Cave’s quieter outings.

From that point onwards, Ellis would gradually rise to become Cave’s primary creative foil. He co-wrote various tracks on No More Shall We Part (2002) and the double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004), before co-founding the comparatively carnal side project, Grinderman, with Cave, Bad Seeds bass player Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos. 

Grinderman’s two blazing LPs—Grinderman and Grinderman 2—provided the first indications that, in Ellis, Cave had found someone who kindled his creative impulses to the point of being able to venture into uncharted stylistic territory. This has become ever more apparent as their creative bond has deepened.

In the years since Grinderman, Cave and Ellis have produced three of the strongest Bad Seeds albums, as well as numerous film soundtracks and last year’s Carnage; the first album attributed to just Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The equal billing on Carnage reflects the fact that Cave and Ellis’ union has itself become so singular that it’s no longer accurate to credit Cave as the primary artist.

Hanging Rock

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis will perform two shows at Hanging Rock in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges this November. Carnage will be the focal point, although songs from the Bad Seeds’ 2019 LP, Ghosteen—the apotheosis of Cave and Ellis’ collaboration—will feature prominently in the setlists. 

Cave recently wrote that touring Carnage fills him with “unabated joy” and described the show he and Ellis have conceived as “just so beautiful.” He and Ellis recently launched the US leg of the Carnage tour. In a review of the March 10th performance at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre, writer Conny Chavez called it “a wild emotional ride,” comprising tears, joy and laughter, and “not a single dull moment.”

The Hanging Rock shows will precede a wider Australian tour, but the outdoor venue will be at limited capacity for Cave and Ellis’ two-night stand, providing audiences with a uniquely intimate experience.

Ten out of ten for Ghosteen

Although Ghosteen—the Bad Seeds’ seventeenth studio album—came out in October 2019, none of its songs have been performed in Australia. Cave and Ellis played a series of theatre shows in late 2019, centred on their catalogue of film soundtracks (which includes scores for The Proposition, Hell or High Water, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and a dozen so more). The pandemic crushed the Bad Seeds’ initial Ghosteen tour plans, but the album is such a work of elemental artistic potency that it begs to be played live. 

According to reviews aggregator Metacritic, Ghosteen was the second highest scoring album of the 2010s (based on contemporaneous critical reviews). Rolling Stone gave it 4.5-star review, while publications such as The Guardian and Mojo awarded it a perfect rating. Slate’s Ann Powers used Ghosteen as an example of why the album format is not dead, and this claim feels particularly salient.

See, the universal acclaim for Ghosteen is warranted not on account of the album’s perfection, but for its sheer living and breathing vitality—the Cave- and Ellis-produced album doesn’t need to be assessed for quality, but to be lived with, experienced; felt.

That said, Ghosteen is also a work of profound musical ingenuity. Ellis makes heavy use of synthesisers and loops; French musician Augustin Viard adds a bit of ondes Martenot, an archaic electronic instrument that sounds akin to a theremin; and, at 62 years old, Cave whips out a falsetto that’s both bruised and angelic. 

Carnage as proof of life

Cave described Ghosteen as the closing chapter in a trilogy that began with 2012’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree. In retrospect, Ghosteen appears like the start of a new chapter, one built on the imaginative integrity of Cave and Ellis’ mutually devised creative universe. 

The new chapter carries on into Carnage, a record that upholds much of Ghosteen’s ambient, philosophical tone, while also introducing a new sense of urgency. The latter facet could be the outcome of Carnage’s nascence—i.e., Cave and Ellis made the album in the space of two or three days amid the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Cave explained what motored Carnage’s creation in a Red Hand Files post from March 2021. “We both felt the enforced stasis, not just unnerving, but also strangely and fitfully energizing,” he wrote. “And so, when we began working in the studio, Carnage came out fast and necessary, as proof of life.”

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Live at Hanging Rock
With special guest Courtney Barnett

Friday, November 25th
Hanging Rock, Macedon Ranges, VIC
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Saturday November 25th
Hanging Rock, Macedon Ranges, VIC
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Frontier Members pre-sale runs 24 hours from 12pm AEDT on Tuesday, March 15th.
General public on sale from 12pm local time on Thursday, March 17th.