There's Never Anything Quite Like Seeing Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Credit: Mark Doyle

There's Never Anything Quite Like Seeing Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

The goth legend kicked off his tour in Brooklyn over Memorial Day weekend with a near three-hour performance that made us believe in the importance of God, Love, Satan, and everything in between.
May 31, 2017, 3:15pm

I missed the first song of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' set at Kings Theatre because I spent too much time picking out a tie at home and I still, after 20 years in the city, still operate under the firm belief that it takes exactly one half hour to get anywhere. Luckily, because the security staff at the renovated historic venue was thorough, there was still a line going half way down the block 20 minutes after the ungodly early for goths start time of 8 PM. Everybody was in a near panic to get in, brushing off with half hugs people they hadn't seen in a decade, I was grateful to have my pain shared. At the risk of painting with too broad a pasty stroke, Nick Cave fans are rarely pigeonholed as having their shit together time-wise or other.

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Besides the anxiety of tardiness, going to see The Bad Seeds in 2017 is fraught with its own issues. The man and the band carry the weight of over thirty years of back-catalogue, mythology both described and lived, and the force of tragedy that makes every move they make pored over for, not just meaning, but importance. Loss is the potential subtext for every note and that's a hell of a flood for a Rock and Roll band to carry.

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I attended the show with my lady. Years ago, I was DJing at some bar that's now a worse bar. She was there wearing a black dress and complicated shoes. I was playing Nick Cave and she pretended not know who it was for the purposes of laughing at me while I, if not mansplained, certainly pedantically dickhead-splained his importance. The number of long-term romances that have begun and ended with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds playing in the background is as high as the stars above us.

It is not to diminish the front man to say that the show of Friday night was a testament to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds the band, rather than the man and his players. When you have the proper name first and follow it with "and The…" it's not unreasonable that the focus falls on the godhead. After all, Lord love The Pips but the running of "Midnight Train To Georgia" didn't depend on them. Cave's Bad Seeds are a different animal. Various members sharing co-writing credits on a number of songs and, by Cave's eager admission, being full throated in the forming of the individual character of every album (except arguably Boatman's Call), The Bad Seeds work as both foundation and extension of Cave's basest or most grandiose plans. For the duration of an almost three hour set that felt short (and I say this as someone who tries to stick to hardcore shows as my attention usually wanders at the 25-minute mark), the power and necessity of the unit was as apparent as it's ever been.

The Bad Seeds are not a band that has ever treated virtuosity as its own reward. All expert players—Jim Sclavunos moving from vibraphone to glockenspiel to drums to analog synth with ease and co-bandleader Warren Ellis throwing high kicks while playing violin and guitar—the band (with the noted absence of an ill pianist Conway Savage) playfully interacted and tautly vamped through a set that leaned on Skeleton Tree and a collection of deeper cut "hits." "I Need You," one of the most exposed and aching songs in Cave's career (no mean feat) was imbued with an extra tension that, while not better than the recorded version, made me feel lucky to experience it as an ephemeral moment, without that placating option to rewind. A song like "Tupelo," their passion play about the infernal birth of Elvis Presley, was dragged out, a projection of end-time hurricanes cast upon the high screen behind the band, and Cave was given the (at least seeming) freedom, with a voice that's gained richness and range with age, to explode when ready. Or at least till he'd grabbed enough hands of the acolytes in rows one through three.

The grabbing of the hands, a live performance tradition beloved by those who don't loathe human contact, is a fun enough thing to watch. It's nice to see people made happy, at least in small doses. And, unlike say Morrissey, where the act of adulation and preening reciprocation feels like the last spark attempts at a fire long dead, Nick Cave balances the knowledge that he's operating within the tradition of SHOWMAN with an audience connection rejuvenated with new work that actually works. Few Nick Cave fans show up just to scream out for the old stuff. In fact, songs off Push the Sky Away and Skelton Tree elicited as much crowd screams as "Red Right Hand" and "From Her To Eternity." As "From Her To Eternity" began to crescendo into its earned hysteria of neighborly malevolence, Cave took a break from singing, hand wringing, and hip thrusting to take a peek at something written on a music stand. Presumably it said, "Your hair looks quite good." At another point, in between songs, Cave caressed a fan's head and asked, "Are you alright? You don't have to be." I only take affirmations seriously from a grown man Leonard Cohen fetishist. A bird on a wire, a kitten hanging in there, whatever works.

Knowing what we know, burdened with or gifted with the appearance of sharing a man's profound personal pain, it was impossible to not look for or fear cracks during any songs from Skeleton Tree, the album that was not written about the death of Cave's son but has taken on that freight in its release. If we love a performer, as much as we are able to love what is not our own blood, we, perhaps empathetically and perhaps presumptuously, share space on the tightrope with them. People cried during "Jesus Alone" and "Girl In Amber," though the root of the grief was theirs to know (or not) themselves. Moments later, we'd shook and shimmied to "Mercy Seat," back in the welcome throes of "Yes, I love this song and my memories of it, but also, man, this beat." The alternating of ownership of the songs, between listener and performer, could have been jarring, but the band and man never allowed for emotional whiplash. I am perhaps being precious; people undoubtedly cried when The Temptations would perform "I Wish It Would Rain," but that doesn't mean David Ruffin owed them a damn thing besides what he gave. Point being, being a Bad Seeds fan allows for a wide spectrum of emotions and that's what we got, while still falling under the umbrella of "a good ass time."

There were a couple fuck ups in a couple songs, like on "Mermaids" where Cave laughingly ran out of rhymes, but perfection is for fascists and The Bad Seeds practice a liberation theology. Hit the notes, sure, but to keep things moving towards transcendence is paramount. I hope Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds never do one of those "Performs Blah Blah In Its Entirety" tours, as I hope they never become a tourism destination spot. The diversity of set choices, the willingness to stretch the songs out or immolate them in Korg if so desired, keeps things human in the face of capital. I occasionally sat to let a song like "Skeleton Tree" feel internal and alternately I sang along to "The Ship Song" and kissed my lady like I was an anthropomorphic lighter held high and it felt tremendous. The crowd, while rarely dancing, stayed on its feet from the quietude of the opening of "Jubilee Street" (it got faster) to the banging out murderous fuck fest of "Stagger Lee." The latter a fitting (second to last song, before "Push the Sky Away") end to the night. The character of Stagger Lee, a man reimagined again and again through various strains of blues and punk, piling up corpses with vulgar glee, with Cave adding lyrics about the Devil coming for Stagger and getting got himself. It was with adolescent glee that the crowd chanted along with every "motherfucker." Paraphrasing the song, my lady claims that she too had to crawl over fifty pussies to get to the boy asshole (me), so, hell, "Stagger Lee" was romantic as well.

Make what you will of it, but, despite what your Instagram feed might currently indicate, there was hardly anyone in the crowd constantly filming or taking photos. I am hesitant to judge how anyone experiences live music, be free and at peace with your god, but the lack of filming was noticeable and, forgive me, very, very fucking nice.

After the final encores, the theatre lights went up quickly. This was a kindness to both those who were old and wanted to get home and those of us transparently fighting age who foolishly made plans for the next bar. None of us had time to have the internal battle between very much wanting the show not to end and wanting to get to either our beds or a Budweiser cheaper than nine dollars. The house music went on and we filed through the theatre gilding to take selfies with the marquee. My girl was happy. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, more than any other time I'd seen them, set the night alight real nice. I sweated like a piglet in a cheap loosened tie, just like I did back when we were all dramatic. I'm a fan, growing older into death and still feeling like a teenager half the time. I'll gratefully accept what Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, owning the stage in a renovated theatre in Brooklyn, as sharp suited defiant specks on the spinning world, give me.

Zachary Lipez could write about Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for the rest of his life, and probably will. Follow him on Twitter.