A spitting, snarling, unbridled Nick Cave stalked McFarlin Auditorium last night, displaying the same unmatched punk fury he's been doling out since The Birthday Party. Audience members got abused. Cave thrust his crotch everywhere. He sung particularly intense lyrics directly into the faces of people in the front row, leaning down so his face was six inches from theirs, pointing right at them and spitting with fury.
In short, he's right up there amongst the best frontmen of this or any generation. No one on the circuit can both command and terrify a crowd quite like Nick Cave. If you match an incredibly rare chance to see such a showman with one of those infrequent reverent audiences that are there for the music and not as a social, drinking night out (not that that's always a bad thing, obviously, I'm just saying concerts are musically better when people shut up), absolute ear-splitting volume, and periods of such intensity that I felt sure people would start keeling over, you have yourself one of those rare concerts where everything comes together .
Sure, there were technical hitches. During "Deanna" Cave threw a hissy fit about a microphone issue, there was a lot of unnecessary feedback, complaints from the band about not being able to stay in tune. Perhaps McFarlin wasn't the right place for this gig, and it seemed like the audience agreed, as they rushed the stage two songs in, after a frenetic rendition of recent single "Jubilee Street", a relatively spontaneous display of affection and disregard for the notion of a seated Nick Cave concert, which had seemed odd to me too. The crescendo to that song, far outdoing the recorded version as Cave bashed angrily at a piano before leaping up to flail in the middle of the stage shouting "I'M TRANFORMING! I'M VIBRATING! LOOK AT ME NOW!" set the tone for the majority of the set and transformed an interested audience into a transfixed audience.
At times, the sound levels, intensity, and excellent dramatic lighting (no flashy lights for Cave, just a classic well-lit stage) combined to turn a song that was just bumbling along into something that appeared to be a result of the gates of Hell opening and a whole world of sonic fury tumbling out. "Red Right Hand" in particular contained two 8-bar breakdowns that I thought were going to demolish the venue. Cave high-kicked and thrust his way across the stage, while Warren Ellis, an intriguing presence throughout, arched his back and started walking slowly with giant steps, like some kind of terrifying violin-playing stork.
Ellis is a fantastic addition to the Bad Seeds, and clearly the band leader, necessary since Cave spends most of his time right down the front sneering into people's faces. Even when there was a quiet break for two ballads from No More Shall We Part, the stately "Love Letter" and satirical "God Is In The House", Ellis remained on stage despite only playing violin for one brief solo in the latter track, slouched on a chair, his lengthy beard covering the open neck of his shirt.
In terms of setlist, it was surprising that Cave discarded almost entirely recent album tracks, apart from those two ballads. Aside from the four opening and one closing tracks, taken from new album Push The Sky Away, the rest of the set, delightfully, was mainly Live Seeds-era Cave, including welcome and unexpected ancient favorites like the swirling collection of train noises and brutal imagery that is "Papa Won't Leave You Henry" as well as relative 80s and 90s staples like "Jack The Ripper", "The Weeping Song" and "From Her To Eternity".
The crazily intense double header of "Mercy Seat" and "Stagger Lee" heralded the end of the main set, as the Bad Seeds kicked into yet another, previously unapparent, gear. "Mercy Seat" built to a crescendo so subtle that, about three minutes in, you realized a wall of white noise was battering you around the face where you could swear it was just an acoustic guitar a second ago.
I genuinely feel that "Mercy Seat" is Cave's stone-cold classic, the song of his that will live on long after the death he so often sings about. Johnny Cash agrees, and who am I to contradict him? "Stagger Lee", meanwhile, brings with it the best lyric-spitting so far, as Cave shouts "MOTHERFUCKER!" repeatedly into the faces of the people who had crowded the sides of the stage. Of course, this crowding brought its own problems, and it's difficult to imagine the mindset of someone who thought Cave would be fine with an iPhone recording him from about three feet away. During the extended end of "Stagger Lee", Cave sang "in came the Devil... with a fucking iPhone in his hand" with a pointed swipe at someone filming him, who hurriedly stopped.
The encore, wrapping up almost two solid hours of audience-enrapturing mayhem (mayhem's not the right word. It was chaotic, but poised, as if the band were in total control of the chaos), brought "Tupelo", a song so old Cave had to check the lyrics in between thrusting his crotch and shouting "THE SANDMAN'S MUD!" at a terrified front row, and album and evening closer "Push The Sky Away", the title track of the recent album. Finishing the evening on a note that was more like a slow church hymn than the raucous punk-tinged rock numbers that characterized the rest of the set, Cave slowly and with intent ended the song with the words "Some people say it's just rock and roll, but it gets you right down to your soul". It really does, Nick, it really does.
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Shout out to: The couple in the row in front of me, who given their mannerisms, confusion, apathy, and awkwardness, appeared to be on the most poorly-chosen first date of all time. "I've got tickets to a show, want to come?" "Sure! What kind of music is it?" "Oh, rock, I think, my friend says they're good." "Great!" Cue two hours of crotch-thrusting and cursing. There will not be a second date.
We No Who U R Jubilee Street Wide Lovely Eyes Higgs Boson Blues From Her to Eternity Red Right Hand Stranger Than Kindness Jack the Ripper Deanna Papa Won't Leave You, Henry Love Letter God Is in the House The Weeping Song The Mercy Seat Stagger Lee
Tupelo Push the Sky Away