A historic night at Hanging Rock

Nick Cave at live at Hanging Rock. (Supplied: Caitlin O’Grady/ALWAYS LIVE)

Elsie Lange

Soft shades of dusk settled around Hanging Rock, the icon on the horizon, a silhouette surrounded by sky awash pink and blue and orange.

The shuttle-bus drive in from Kyneton was all buzz and flickering golden light, the pilgrimage towards the rock full of quiet anecdotes shared between friends about the last time they’d seen Nick Cave, or the tragedy of the death of sons, or the role of grief in music.

Footsteps sunk into already well-trodden mud, spirits buoyed by an atmosphere completely electric, devotees of Nick Cave and his forever friend, Warren Ellis gathering, excitedly chatting and drinking.

Cathedral-like, the backdrop rocks were more powerful than any stained glass I’ve ever seen. The place of Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, the Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung peoples was the site of some strange congregation.

From the seated rows Cave looked small against the rock when he emerged, joined by wild-haired Ellis with his open shirt and smile. But as soon as he spoke, crowds hushed, people young and old whipped out their phones, to snap him and the landscape before the sun went down.

Projected on screens to the left and right of the stage, their bodies and faces were black and white and large, as Spinning Song’s opening synthesied, shimmering drone began to soar above the crowd, “Once there was a song, the song yearned to be sung, it was a spinning song about the king of rock and roll,” he spoke-sang, the way he does.

From there, the sun set, and the songs grew large, enveloping. Onstage behind the suited Cave were gold-clad singers T.Jae Cole, Wendi Rose and Janet Rasmus and band, Larry Mullins on drums and Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood playing bass. It was big and faultless and beautiful, every song perfectly punctuated by harmony or space.

Ellis sat to his right, keyboard on knees, where he thrashed about or held himself still, a total presence.

Frustrated by our distance from the stage, we made our way to the barrier to the left, to be closer to something we could feel would go down in history.

He tore through classics, both new and older, tracks from his 2019 record Ghosteen, tinged with pain, and from his 2021 record with Ellis, Carnage, that lyric ‘I’ll shoot you all in the f***in face” ringing loud. His song, ‘I Need You’, from 2016’s Skeleton Tree, left no faces dry. And then later, ‘Hand of God’ chanted like a man speaking in tongues, was scary, totally captivating.

In his manner, he slunk, or strode, through songs dripping with sex and rage and mourning. He jumped on and off the grand piano, or cowered over the audience, their hands outstretched, leaning into his religion.

He finished, but we knew he hadn’t, as they performed that time-old cliche of the encore. Back out he came, and with him, many songs – it felt generous. Hands still stretched towards him from the crowd, here and there people begged to hear what they came for.

As the crowd together sang Into My Arms, it was as if everyone collectively decided ‘We will remember this’ – a triumph for organisers Always Live, Frontier Touring and Supersonic.

And then, he was gone, and everyone trudged back to their shuttle buses – euphoric.