Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Hammerstein Ballroom - 7/27/14
Photo by Tom Oldham courtesy Nasty Little Man
Better Than: About 90-95 percent of the shows I've seen in my life.
First, a bit of disclosure. There's a certain degree to which you get spoiled living in New York, especially if writing about music factors into your job. You see a lot of concerts, and it all starts to blend together a bit. Much of it's great, and hey, going to three shows a week isn't a bad way to live your life, but naturally it becomes harder for things to stand out in your memory, for them to become challengers for your top 10 shows of all time, or whatever. A little over a month ago, I was covering Bonnaroo and made the unpopular decision of seeing Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds instead of Frank Ocean, or the Flaming Lips, or Skrillex's SuperJam. And I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it was, on some level, life-changing. He's the sort of artist I've long been distantly familiar with, knowing and liking some of his music but always thinking I'd have to set aside some serious time to do a proper deep dive into his career; I walked out of that show feeling like I'd suddenly found an artist that had been under my nose for years, just waiting to become one of the most important artists in my life.
There's just so much less of a chance of that kind of thing happening after a certain amount of years, which makes it all the more overwhelming when it does once more. In the subsequent weeks, I've listened to his albums obsessively; "The Mercy Seat" has received two or three plays per day alone. So: I was excited to see Nick Cave again. And he delivered.
Cave is something of a niche legend, one of the many ways he's a rare breed. Walking out to the rhythm of slow-burn opener "We Real Cool," Cave looked every bit the part, as well. He's one of those guys who just radiates charisma, easily pulling out a laugh or wild cheers for small gestures or bits of banter, but also possessing a certain immortal swagger. As he always does these days, he was wearing a black suit, a dress shirt half-unbuttoned (this time it looked shimmery and silvery), a necklace hanging out from within, and his hair slicked back. He kind of looks like an assassin from Las Vegas. But then there's that swagger, the lithe and serpentine movements mixed with the mad-eyed, possessed ones, and the way he'll wave his arms languidly and drop them down at key moments in songs. In these moments, he has the look of some dark preacherman, or perhaps just a sorcerer. (The 40-something woman near me straight-up convulsing her way through "From Her to Eternity" was a strong argument for the latter.)
Billed as the "Final Area Show," Cave's Hammerstein Ballroom set (as well as the preceding night's Celebrate Brooklyn show at the Prospect Park Bandshell) saw the man still touring last year's excellent and somewhat overlooked in-the-grand-scheme-of-things Push the Sky Away, but he also has a pseudo-documentary about him out called 20,000 Days on Earth. Accordingly, the setlist reflected this juncture, split between Push the Sky Away material and something of a Nick Cave greatest hits. Though there were plenty gaps (he fit just 16 songs into two hours; there were a lot of epics), Cave's current setlist gives you a good bite-sized summary of all the different forms and themes he's explored over the years: from early favorites like "Tupelo" or "The Mercy Seat," to the warped vulgarity spree of "Stagger Lee" (Cave in "his Disney villain mode," as the friend who accompanied me described it), to more vulnerable piano balladry like "God is in the House" or "The Ship Song." Twin standouts from Let Love In, "Do You Love Me?" and "Red Right Hand" received some of the most fervent responses of the night, further underlining that that album itself might be the perfect distillation of everything Cave's been about in his career.
Perhaps because it was the first Cave album I bought and, in a slow-burn kind of way, it was the catalyst for this whole thing, Push the Sky Away will inevitably always rank highly in my estimation, and hearing those songs is just as special. (And I suppose I better enjoy it while I can: other recent Cave albums, like Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! or the Grinderman records have been entirely unrepresented in recent setlists.) A mostly atmospheric, meditative listen, Cave and his band give this material a lot more muscle and drama in a concert setting. "Jubilee Street," almost always played second song in these days, is like the real opener after the prologue. Its majestic sweep and narrative from the album is successfully recreated, but intensified by several degrees. Where the studio version drifts off into the horizon on string swells and some late-breaking guitar, live the band quickens the tempo, cranks the distortion, and rides it out until Cave tires of repeating the refrain: "I'm transforming/ I'm vibrating/ Look at me now!" It's a line that is at once desperate and a challenge, and I hope he at least keeps this song around for some time. There are few shows I've seen begin so powerfully.
The gripes, as they are, are minor. Nick Cave as the piano man can be a welcome reprieve from the always-at-11 intensity of his shows, but four of last night's 16 songs saw him bottling up that kinetic energy and sitting down at the keys, including the last two. Which was some nice variety compared to when I saw him last month, but "Deanna" would've been a lot more fun of a closer than "People Ain't No Good." And "The Weeping Song," which turns into a whole other beast live, was sorely missed. Otherwise, while it might not have had the spontaneous perspective-restructuring power of the last time I saw Cave, this show was still one of the greatest things I've seen in some time, probably ever. It's rare to see a young, in-their-peak performer muster anything close to the same magnitude of what Cave can now conjure so easily. This is a man who's 56, still a vital artist, whose masterpieces are spread out over several decades and defy all manner of career logic like "peak eras." Seeing him now is a rollercoaster of realizing once more how complex and dark and beautiful and horrifying the human race is, and how visceral it is when a man like Cave manages to hold all of that within his music at once.
As the man himself sings in the final verse of "Push the Sky Away": "Some people say it's just rock 'n' roll/ Ah, but it gets you right down to your soul," you realize, sure, plenty of people have sung variations of that in the past. But the gravity Cave's voice and presence give it, as always, reminds you that it's elemental and true.
Random Notebook Dump: I spotted Orange is the New Black's Taylor Schilling and Natasha Lyonne hanging in the lobby before the show, and while there were plenty of people of no discernible subculture at the show, every time an aged punk or a goth kid walked past them it looked like worlds and eras were colliding. Critical Bias: Refer to Paragraph 1.
Setlist: We Real Cool Jubilee Street Tupelo Red Right Hand Mermaids From Her to Eternity Sad Waters God is in the House Do You Love Me? Higgs Boson Blues The Mercy Seat Stagger Lee Push the Sky Away
Encore 1: Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
Encore 2: The Ship Song People Ain't No Good
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