Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Monday, July 7, 2014
Nick Cave is buried up to his waist in hands -- fists, palms, fingers, all grasping at him. He's cantilevered over the crowd so far it seems he's either standing on people or standing on air. "I hope you're listening," Cave seethes into the microphone, pointing a long finger and a burning eye at one of the supporting souls beneath him. "Are you?"
The question is a lyric from "We Real Cool," with which Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds began the first of two sold-out shows at the Warfield last night. It may also have been a tease, a taunt, a dare. Or perhaps a straight-up brag. Of the nearly two hours Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds stabbed, strafed, and sometimes soothed the Warfield with music last night, perhaps no more than a couple minutes were less than horrifically intense. What was about to occur onstage would demand far more than listening, and Cave well knew it.
It was the Bad Seeds' second run through town in support of Push the Sky Away, their quietly burning, unexpectedly successful 2013 album, and though smaller than last year's showcase at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium -- where Cave brought at local children's choir onstage to sing with him -- this performance was hotter, scarier, more gripping. After a year of touring with the new songs, Cave and his band have mastered them: They open with intestine-knotting bass of "We Real Cool" and carefully punch their way out of the quiet, with "Jubilee Street" climaxing in rippling explosions of feedback, bright claps of piano, and howls from Warren Ellis' tortured little violin.
Cave himself seems in a rather jubilant mood, spending most of the show cocooned in the outstretched limbs of his adorers. He can't bear to remain out of their arms, at the center of the stage, for more than a minute or two; he's always leering back toward the hands, grabbing them, hanging on, shouting lines into the faces of their owners, sometimes berating them: "Get a job!" In his exquisite suit, with a shiny gold shirt that eventually comes unbuttoned to the belly, Cave radiates power and sex like a cracked reactor (it doesn't hurt that there are rows of strange hands always grabbing at his lower body). He has perhaps the best, most rakish, silhouette in all of rock 'n' roll, and there are side lights to project its insectoid shape onto the walls.
The man in charge even takes requests -- once during the main set, when he began one song but changed his mind after a fan asked for "Sad Waters," and once during the encore, when we're treated to "Jack the Ripper." There are 19 songs total, apparently a little more than at other recent shows, all of them breathtaking. "Red Right Hand" feels like listening to a comic book. "From Her to Eternity" rises atop coarse sheets of noise. "Stagger Lee" turns into almost preening jazz-funk, with a cheeky piano flourish underscoring that line about the fat boy's asshole. At the end of that song, a crowd favorite, Cave's murderous, arrogant Stagger Lee even kills the devil. Yes, the devil. Take it as a sign of Cave's confidence -- and a deserved one. When he bellows that line, bowed over the hands and faces of an audience in full thrall at this beautiful, profane pummeling, murdering the devil seems entirely possible.
Oh, yeah: They're doing it again tonight, July 8, also at the Warfield.
Past shapes: Last week's New York Times Magazine profile on Cave opened with him discussing Elvis, and how he once refused to go into Graceland out of embarrassment at the King's late-era behavior. Watching Cave onstage last night -- especially after he'd flung off his suit jacket and was striding about in dark pants and a gold shirt open at the chest -- you could squint and see Elvis in the shape of Cave. I hadn't thought about Cave's debts to the King before -- in his style of dress, in his fearless command of an audience, in his toying with transgression -- but suddenly, during "Stagger Lee" and later, the kinship became crystal clear. (And of course "Tupelo," which the band played earlier in the set, is about the birth of Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi.)
The power of inflection: It doesn't get a lot of discussion, but Cave can be very funny. In performance he makes certain syllables elastic, drawing out phrases like, "And a bellhop hops" or "Bury me in my favorite patent leather yellow shoes" to ludicrous lengths, until the words themselves are inseparable from the absurdity of Cave's puckering, percussive delivery. The closing lines of "Higgs Boson Blues" earn laughs even though they're inscrutable and dark as hell: "Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake/And you're the best girl I've ever had/Can't remember anything at all."
We Real Cool
Red Right Hand
From Her to Eternity
West Country Girl
Into My Arms
God Is in the House
The Weeping Song (w/Mark Lanegan)
Higgs Boson Blues
The Mercy Seat
Push the Sky Away
Jack the Ripper
Papa Won't Leave You Henry
The Lyre of Orpheus