The Boy Next Door

30 September 2017, Spiegeltent, Havelock North
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

In recent years I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with Nick Cave. The peak of my adoration for him coincided with a weakness for the wrong sort of man and the two remain inextricably intertwined in my psyche for better or for worse. It’s an unfortunate third act Clockwork Orange effect that can’t help but pull back the curtain on the tantalising allure of his beckoning voice to reveal the razorblades lurking beneath.

But The Boy Next Door takes its name from the embryotic Nick Cave. Before the Bad Seeds, before the Birthday Party, before young Nick turned twenty-one, before he left Australia’s dusty shores and became the front man for ‘the most violent band in the world’. In the tender and capable hands of Reb Fountain, we get the distilled genius of Cave’s lyricism and emotional impact without the patriarchal tug to the fine hairs at the back of the neck.

From the moment she arrives on the Spiegeltent stage she possesses it completely. It can’t be an accident that she chooses to open with last year’s ‘Rings of Saturn’. With her assertion that “this is the moment/ this is exactly where she is born to be/ this is what she does and this is what she is”, she takes ownership of the microphone as mouthpiece and proceeds to reclaim and redefine Cave’s work. Reb inhabits the music in a deeply personal way, as though she has come into relationship with Nick Cave, and the audience is merely incidental, almost intrusive at times. Like a preacher, she beats time with hypnotic hand gestures, holding her all male and undoubtedly accomplished band, and the audience, in her thrall. Like an orchestral conductor, she radiates power right to the tips of her fingers, raised to create a dramatic tableau against the black backdrop during ‘Into My Arms’.

The filtering of Nick Cave’s work through a convex lens of gender is most pronounced in Reb’s duets with the locally ubiquitous Fane Flaws. Enacting two of the most popular tracks from the two-decades-old Murder Ballads, Fane variously plays the parts of PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue, while Reb inhabits the persona of Cave, both macabre and powerful. But not content with a strict one-for-one role reversal, Reb subverts the narrative further, imbuing her incarnation of Nick Cave with a sweetness and vulnerability that is testament to her strength as a performer and a presence.

Invited into this intimate communion between artists, personally, I cannot help but be moved to movement. The passion conveyed in ‘Jack the Ripper’ has me on my feet at the back bar with a small handful of kindred spirits. Unfortunately, it seems that the other 294 patrons are made of stone and remain seated, clapping politely at the appropriate points, despite Reb’s heartfelt incitement to disseminate some of the raw emotion she exudes in abundance. Perhaps it’s fitting that she draws attention to the fact that she conceived of the project in response to Nick Cave’s sixtieth birthday –  the average age of the audience. It’s a tough crowd, but as a consummate professional she guides them through brimstone and fire with ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow’ (“Save yourself!/Help yourself!”) to pure redemption with an encore of ‘Deanna’ Against a backdrop of sweetly harmonising tenors, she’s “down here for your soul. Oh Happy Day!”

 

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