Over the past four decades Nick Cave has risen from the depths of the Australian underground of punk and rock to create some of the most epic songs ever written. Beginning with the darkly challenging The Birthday Party, to his current work with the Bad Seeds, Cave has consistently produced brilliantly compelling albums. He has also kept good company, collaborating with many other amazing musicians ranging from Shane MacGowan to Pulp to Marianne Faithful. Guest female vocalists such has PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue joined him on 1996’s Murder Ballads, and Johnny Cash even covered one of his most famous songs, “The Mercy Seat” back in 2000, adding to Cave’s legendary status. So it’s perhaps no surprise that his two shows at Chicago’s 2,300-person capacity Riviera Theater were sellouts.
Putting his extensive catalog of studio albums aside (his recordings with the Bad Seeds alone totals 14), Cave has also turned into a true renaissance man, dipping his hand into literature and film. As well as writing the screenplay and composing the score (alongside Bad Seed, Warren Ellis) to the 2005 drama The Proposition—a gritty Western set in the Australian outback—Cave also made an appearance, both cinematically and musically, in the The Assassination Of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. With his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, a dense and chaotic tale that highlights the inner workings of Cave’s true genius, he proved to be an adept author of the written word outside of his verbose lyrics. Musically, he has branched out as well. In addition to his current work with the Bad Seeds, Cave recently invested his energies into a side project entitled Grinderman. That group’s self-titled 2007 release was heavily influenced by garage and blues-y rock, adding an increased edginess to his idiosyncratic sound.
Needless to say, with a resume this stacked, Nick Cave has the commanding stage presence one would expect from a man of his caliber. He can be as provocative as he is tender. Stalking the tip of the stage countless times, Cave reached out to an audience who had no doubt waited countless hours to secure such a prime spot.
Not surprisingly, the set list placed an emphasis on his most recent release Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. In some ways the album encompasses a higher level of aggression than his previous recordings, a fact that seems fitting given the recent Grinderman release. This musical edge served to heighten the intensity Cave embraced on stage. Even songs that have been traditionally soft and gentle, such as “The Weeping Song”, came off as faster, louder, and with an increased sense of rawness.
While new songs formed the backbone of the set, it wasn’t long before Cave started pulling from his extensive and exhaustive catalogue. “Deanna”, “Red Right Hand”, “The Weeping Song”, and “The Mercy Seat”, all made appearances as Cave created a tremendous sense of tension that built throughout the set. This friction came to a head during “The Mercy Seat” and continued into the incredible encore that included “Get Ready for Love” and “Stagger Lee”. At times, the juxtaposition between the tender moments and Cave’s dynamic anguish was jarring, especially when “Into My Arms”—with minimal changes to the original recording—was integrated into the rest of the set. In comparison, after touching on the human element with grace, Cave acted almost possessed during “Stagger Lee”, “We Call Upon the Author”, and “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”. He paced the stage, pointed at the audience, and gestured as only a brilliant madman can.
As one might imagine, the Bad Seeds, Cave’s industrious backing band, include some of the most talented men in music. Their ability to bring Cave’s complex songwriting to fruition is a true testament to their musical abilities. Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, in particular, is definitely at the forefront of the Bad Seeds (he also worked with Cave on Grinderman and his film soundtracks). Cave interacted with Ellis throughout the set, coming close to him many times as he heightened the backing band’s presence.
Throughout his career, Cave has demonstrated an incredible ability to tell a story with lyrics that allow the listener to visualize a scene so vividly. At the same time, he uses such a wide range of references from mythology and religion that add tremendously to his lyrical versatility. And while this performance was filled with many lyrical rewards and musical gems, the most awe inspiring sense arose from witnessing the man himself—a man whose wild imagination, sense of knowledge and wit, and utter talent has helped add true significance and meaning to the canon of music for over thirty years.