There have been very few bands I’ve anticipated seeing as heavily as Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Perhaps more than any other band, they redefined the way I approached both viewing and making music. Five years ago, driving down the streets of a near-abandoned city at dusk, the opening strains of “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” caught my attention; when the song exploded into the violent, visceral tour-de-force it is, I was hooked. This was an introduction to something I’d been seeking for years: art with a legitimate vengeance. As soon as the line “the walls ran red around me, a warm arterial spray” registered, my jaw was on the ground. I was hooked.
Five years from that moment, I’d scored a short film using a similar template to the one Cave and his scoring partner (and Bad Seeds member) Warren Ellis utilized for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I’d seen and studied the Cave-penned western The Proposition extensively, read both of his novels (And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro), and had every Nick Cave studio release in my digital library, dating back to his work with Boys Next Door. Seeing Grinderman in Chicago in 2011 was a near-religious experience that found myself and my friend Jesse literally outpacing a storm that sent a tornado through a small town roughly twenty minutes after we passed through, but still – it wasn’t the Bad Seeds.
All of that said, it was impossible not to feel a certain trepidation upon arriving in Chicago. With the kind of lofty self-imposed expectations I’d built it up, the only possible outcome was crushing letdown. I should have known better. After some incredibly helpful assistance navigating the perils of Chicago parking and travel by my good friend (and fellow writer) Sasha, my small group arrived at the Chicago Theater, fashionably late. Unfortunately, this meant missing the vast majority of Sharon Van Etten’s opening set. Luckily, it didn’t mean missing “Give Out”, a song that’s hit a deep nerve with me ever since hearing Van Etten’s 2009 Baeblemusic performance of it. In a live setting, accompanied only be a drummer, it’s even more striking. As that song finished, Sasha turned to me and remarked “her voice is too big to fit on her records” and it was impossible not to agree.
After Van Etten wrapped her set a song later, all that was left was to wait and wonder. My fears of being let down were immediately put at ease with a lovely rendition of the Ke$ha-baiting “We No Who U R” the lead-off single of this year’s excellent Push the Sky Away, which also managed to divert expectations. For a moment, I wondered if the night would be a rough repeat of the live webcast the band offered for their February Los Angeles show; heavy on the brooding and atmospheric cuts on Push the Sky Away.
Then, about halfway through their second song that evening, “Jubilee Street”, I stopped thinking. Hell, it was almost like I stopped existing. On Push the Sky Away “Jubilee Street” maintains an easygoing pace throughout. Live, In the second half, it explodes. As the song progresses, the momentum increases accordingly; Cave flies back and forth between the microphone and the piano, unable to contain even himself in a whirlwind of increased energy that comes dangerously close to completely flying off the handle. Throughout, Cave managed to reign and dictate like a master ringleader, to the point of conjuring up memories of the terrifying precision of the Beijing Opening Ceremonies, only on a much more intimate scale. For every instrumental slide, there was an accompanying outward snap of the arm, proving that though Cave is now the sole remaining founding member of the Bad Seeds, the band is as tight-knit as they’ve ever been.
After demonstrating their full potential in the “staggering wall of noise” department, something they refined with the addition of Warren Ellis, things were more or less reigned in for the next few songs, including a run through “Higgs Boson Blues” that was so immersing, it seemed as if nothing but the performance existed. Details like location and audience completely evaporated in the all-consuming presence of the song. “Higgs Boson Blues”, maybe more than any other song on Push the Sky Away, perpetrates the timeless aesthetic that the Bad Seeds have perfected over their career arc more masterfully than any of their contemporaries this side of Tom Waits. In the live setting it created something not too far removed from the moment of total immersion a lot of people experience in the theater at a screening of a particularly engrossing film.
Then, as would prove the case for most of the night, the Bad Seeds decided to completely obliterate the levels of enveloping comfort provided by “Higgs Boson Blues” with an absolutely harrowing performance of “From Her to Eternity”, that seemed even more violent and deranged than the version on the band’s 1984 debut, which was named after the song. While the bass in the studio version emphasized the song’s particularly vehement menace, driven home by Cave snarling lines like “I catch ’em in my mouth”, in Chicago the bass was so pulverizing it was a small revelation that the torsos of literally everyone on the main floor didn’t burst open. When the chord stabs of that song relented, things settled into more of a groove that saw Cave leading his band through a trio of some of the more recognizable cuts from the band’s catalog (“Red Right Hand”, “Deanna”, and “Jack the Ripper”) before Cave stopped his reckless careening and took a seat at his piano.
For the first time since “Wide Lovely Eyes”, the audience was allowed to breathe as Cave displayed he is human, after all, by having a few false starts on “God Is in the House” before giving up on it entirely, making a few cutting remarks, and opting for “Your Funeral, My Trial” instead, which began a near flawless run of quieter songs that included both “People Ain’t No Good” and “Love Letter”. Those fleeting moments of tenderness were entirely dismantled in one fell swoop by a very forceful take on “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”, that included Cave pulling a girl onstage and then not-so-gently indicating she should get off it after the line “and it’s into the shame, and it’s into the guilt, and it’s into the fucking fray…”, providing one of the most vivid and bracing jolts of a night full of them. In that singular moment, Cave managed to completely collapse the barrier between artist and audience to create something that was a direct reflection of the sense of danger the band has managed to conjure so effortlessly since their debut.
The main set was brought to a close in stunning fashion with the one-two knockout punch that began with Cave’s high watermark, “The Mercy Seat”. From the moment “The Mercy Seat” began to build to the moment it simply had no choice but to devolve into chaos, it represented one of the pinnacles of what a band could accomplish with a live performance when everything lines up just right. Each gear clicks into place and has a knock-on effect on the next piece of mechanics until there’s a seamlessly functioning whole – but all the gears are exposed, allowing the audience to fully appreciate what’s happening as it happens. That’s a tough thing to follow and it was difficult to imagine what could possibly come next. The answer? The ultra-profane, entirely tongue-in-cheek, Murder Ballad, “Stagger Lee”.
“Stagger Lee”, as it has been for at least a decade now, was adorned with an extended interlude leading into the most explosive ending of the night. However, the two moments that truly stood out were the ones that were spontaneously ad-libbed by Cave during the performance. First, after an incredibly emphatic “suck my dick” from Cave, some poor soul was kneed in the face. Cave grew concerned, dialed the band down, and expressed his genuine apologies. However, after dropping down to eye-contact level with the person affected and being completely ensured they were, in fact, all right, he held their gaze for a moment longer before hissing- once again, this time directly to the stunned concertgoer “suck my dick“, offering a great deal of amusement to everyone. That moment wouldn’t be upstaged but Cave’s interlude lyrics about the devil were given a nice touch when he clarified that the devil didn’t just come to take Stag down, but that he also had “a fuckin’ iPhone in his hand”. Of course, both of those incidents were momentarily overshadowed by the speaker-crushing outro that saw all seven members giving their respective instruments all they could, with Cave howling like a possessed madman amidst waves of ceaseless feedback. It was a fitting end.
Following the appropriate amount of applause, the band slinked their way back onstage to take a rousing run at “Tupelo”, which gained a surprising amount of intensity in the live setting before once and for all letting the smoke clear and allowing the night to end on a wisp rather than an explosion with a fairly moving performance of “Push the Sky Away”, that included Sharon Van Etten and her backing vocalist coming out to join the Bad Seeds, which they’d been doing at various points all evening.
Finally, the lights came on as the song died out, reality came crashing back in, and I could only look out at the crowd, stunned and waiting. Waiting to fully process what had just happened. Waiting to form coherent thoughts and remark on what just happened. Now, I’m still waiting, waiting and hoping, that I get to another show as good as the one that had just happened.