Photos by Daniel Kielman
If such a thing as the devil exists, then he is admittedly good at many things – initiating cataclysmic environmental disasters, sowing hatred and mistrust among mankind, getting Republicans elected to Congress – but I don’t think even he could command the seductive sway that Nick Cave holds over an audience. Cave swaggers about the stage like a man possessed, sometimes as a brooding Casanova, sometimes like a crooning Baron Samedi, but always utterly captivating, working up the crowd like a masterful shaman or charismatic cult leader. “Gather ’round children, gather ’round,” he gently implores about a quarter of the way into his two-hour set, the faithful followers dutifully flocking ever closer to the stage. “We’ve traveled over prairies, over mountains…We’ve come a long way to be with you tonight.” Besides a smattering of cat calls, the concert hall is dead silent, nearly everyone hanging on the man’s every word. “Now, I’d like to tell you about a girl,” and – Boom! The Bad Seeds suddenly kick into an explosive version of “From Her To Eternity,” with its crashing piano chords and thunderous tom-tom drum rolls.
That’s the way most of the night went at the first of two sold-out shows at The Warfield – a constant clash between subdued and outrageous, sorrow and fury, soft and loud. Cave tempted the audience with opener “We Real Cool,” an atmospheric slow-burner off his atmospheric slow-burning latest LP Push the Sky Away. One might have thought the trend would continue throughout the whole show because the next song “Jubilee Street” was another atmospheric slow-burner. However, this one built palpable tension with each passing minute, until drummer Jim Sclavunos decisively bumped up the tempo, the other musicians began turning up the volume and, before you could even realize it, Cave started howling like a madman, tossing his microphone away, leaning into the crowd, audience members grabbing at his crotch. Soon the band devolved into sonic incoherency, Warren Ellis stopped playing the violin and started attacking it, and the audience was completely under the spell of the Bad Seeds.
This was a Nick Cave show through and through, attracting everyone from goths and punks to metalheads, stoners, hipsters, hippies (albeit the burnt-out, disillusioned kind) and even a few normal-looking folks. Adhering to such diversity, Cave and company kept the set list fluid and varied, with the hard-hitting numbers (“Jack the Ripper,” “Tupelo”) juxtaposing the lamenting ballads (“Into My Arms,” “God Is In The House”). But the highlights were the tunes off the new album, the live sound fully fleshing out the more restrained recorded versions, especially the Dylan-like ramble of “Higgs Boson Blues.” That, plus “Stagger Lee,” a ten-plus minute piece of performance art that had Cave playing the eponymous sociopath on his tale full of murder and profanity, riding the slinky bass line of Martyn Casey and wailing at a hypnotized audience.
Though Cave is an intensely engrossing frontman, he wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the Bad Seeds as his backing band. With a lesser group of musicians, this material could easily fall into chaos, instead of the controlled chaos merely skirting about the fringes of pure noise on display; that’s a careful distinction that makes this music work and proves these are no ordinary musicians. These are men assembled to control the madness, to let it run when possible but also to reign it in when necessary. These are musicians who can hold back on a tune like “Weeping Song” (which received an added dose of freshness from opener Mark Lanegan, his gravelly voice perfectly suiting the mournful melody) and then let loose with unmatched ferocity on “Papa Won’t You Leave Henry.”
My two favorite moments of the show, however, were mere details in comparison to more the noteworthy happenings, such as Cave shouting ‘motherfucker’ profusely or the band taking requests during the encore. The first was set closer “Push the Sky Away,” which is, yes, an atmospheric slow-burner that was performed so beautifully it managed to keep a previously raucous audience completely quiet for a full four minutes. The second and, in some ways even more telling moment of the performance, was when Cave fumbled for an instant on “God Is In The House.” It was only a second, a mere missed chord that most people probably didn’t even notice, but in that moment an unplanned, uncontrolled smile crossed his face, then a curt laugh. He caught himself quickly and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Warren Ellis,” as his bandmate launched into a tearful solo. It was a genuine moment, one in which the demonic preacher persona was dropped and Nick Cave the man peeked through, revealing the most minor of cracks in the carefully crafted mystique. So, he is human after all.