It is fair to say there are very few music artists who have steered clear of media exposure and profit-driven hysteria for decades, yet whose releases and live performances draw in hundreds of thousands of people with little advertising. It is also fair to say that, for the most part, it means that these artists’ fans resemble a cult following. Both statements apply in Nick Cave’s (and the Bad Seeds’) case.
After a four-year live performance drought – during which he released a live album and concert film Idiot Prayer (2020), a music documentary This Much I Know to Be True (Andrew Dominik, 2022), and 2021’s Carnage, a splendid album that he released with his foremost Bad Seeds trustee Warren Ellis – Cave and his band of extraordinary bedlamites are back on the road. The 37-date world tour – unfortunately not including North America this year – combines festival and large outdoor venue appearances. Initially, it was supposed to take place in 2019 to promote Ghosteen, the most personal and reflexive album of Cave’s career, but the pandemic took its toll. (The tragedy that inspired Ghosteen is left out of this article, as the media have already paid too much undue attention to it. Everyone understands loss and can relate to it, and that’s that.)
By the time the six band members plus two touring staff embarked on a new journey, they had decided that a more eclectic setlist might be more appropriate for their comeback. Since Cave’s humongous opus happens to be among the most consistently impressive in modern rock, this was a sound decision, though I would have died to have heard “Hollywood” live.
As is appropriate for this band’s status, in Berlin (and many other cities), they play the largest non-stadium outdoor venue; here, it’s the legendary Waldbühne, with a capacity of over 22,000. I’ve been to this venue multiple times in the past month, and it seems even fuller on the evening of 29 June than it was for a sold-out Pearl Jam show the week prior. Given how (thankfully) careful Germans are not to overcrowd any space and leave enough room for everyone to stand/sit comfortably, the amphitheater is spectacularly cramped; still, this is only the second hurdle of the evening.
The first and main obstacle in the everyday life of a large city is getting to the venue. As a part of the Olympiapark, Waldbühne is located on the westernmost end of the city and takes an hour or more to reach from most parts of town, even by car. It doesn’t help that the show is on a Wednesday and that it starts at 7pm without an opening act. After work, we hustle through the gridlock and cuss along the way, barely making it in time – only to find that all sections of the amphitheater but the nosebleed seats have been cut off for new arrivals.
If there is anything I’ve learned from the Pearl Jam performance, it’s that the security people don’t care about the occasional porousness of the borders of the standing area – I dash to the far end, carefully slip downstairs twice shoulder-to-shoulder with the many approved attendees who’ve been stamped to leave and get drinks, and then, once I reach the front seating row, nonchalantly step over the meager stone wall that separates it from the stage-front area. Nobody even so much as looked at me throughout this juvenile adventure. It was worth the risk – I’d do much worse to see Nick Cave.
Just past 7, the sermon begins. Historically speaking, there are two ways to kick off a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show: either with a verbose, pontificating song of moderate intensity (cue “Jesus Alone” from the last tour), or an unhinged carnal celebration. This year we get the latter: as He leisurely emerges onto the stage in a recognizable dark suit and unbuttoned white shirt, “Get Ready for Love” takes off in all its glory. Played live on tour for the first time since 2009, this gem from Abbattoir Blues has it all: fanfare, backing vocals, homiletic directives, and a maniacal Cave descending straight onto his flock, grabbing random hands and screaming “Praise him!!!” as the front rows bunch up toward him as if in a trance.
I’ve written about Cave and the Bad Seeds many times, and nothing changes for a band this experienced and performance so visceral. This is a good thing. Melodic carnage, transcendental lyrics, cathartic delivery of immeasurable intensity, and an aura of divine communion between Him and his flock can be expected and delivered. People scramble and weep just to touch Him, hold up signs for him, throw countless flowers for him (this is a tradition), and even a star of David (we’ll get to that) at Him. The adulation of His congregation is so immense it borders on satirical, despite the undeniable force of Nic Cave and the Bad Seed’s opus. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”, another star from Abbatior Blues follows, and the masses clap and swirl as Cave runs along the front of the stage, customarily spending more time touching (dare we think healing?) His followers.
“From Her to Eternity” has been a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds setlist regular for nearly 40 years, but it doesn’t speak to its importance for the oeuvre or the listeners that Cave has been delivering it with the same gimmicks for 20 years now. “Walk and cry!”, “kneel and cry”, “cry, cry, CRY!”, he repeats, often mockingly rubbing his eyes, as he paces like a feral animal while the cacophony stretches along for more than nine minutes. Having seen Cave live on every tour in the past two decades, it is all right to say that this hysterical story telling us about a (hysterical) young woman in a comically hysterical manner has – at least in this form – overstayed its welcome. Removing the overlong but not over-exciting “Stagger Lee” from this tour setlist was a good move, but changing or omitting “From Her to Eternity” would have been even better.
That is not to say these aren’t brilliant songs but, please, bear in mind – the vast majority of Cave’s songs are brilliant, and with 17 albums under Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds belt, it would be rewarding to shuffle the setlist a bit. Without a shroud of exaggeration, off the top of my head, I can name 30 (you read that right) epic tunes that would be a spectacular fit for any Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds setlist, but the band remains strangely insistent on repeating about half of their setlist every time, no matter the tour.
Still, the disciples are entranced… as much as a typically restrained German audience can be. Cave even facetiously reacts to the eruption of screams during the “From Here to Eternity” outro. “Thank you, that’s encouraging,” he smirks. This continuous back and forth between the flock and its shepherd will continue throughout the night. One woman in the front row put up a sign reading “hug me, mom”, and Cave benevolently obliges. Others offer flowers, and he takes several of them to use as props during His exhortations. People Cave’s age and teenagers alike rejoice at His every move. It is always touching to witness, if not borderline preposterous.
Cave treads the line between divine and farcical with aplomb and humor. During “O Children”, another absolute treasure from Abbatoir Blues, someone shouts “We are the world!” at Him. Cave stops in His tracks and looks at the person intently, then chortles and exclaims: “No, you are not the world. We are a small section of the world.” We laugh, but the joke is on us.
Moving forward, the setlist is appropriately diverse, spanning 14 releases, including Cave’s and Ellis’ Carnage. “Jubilee Street” is one of several highlights (and a song which absolutely should make it onto every tour), and as Cave prances, growling, “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing _ look at me now!”, more fans offer flowers. By now, the gesture has worn thin, and Cave gently turns them down while laughing.
If there is a solemn, tearful moment at this concert, it is during “Bright Horses”, the most devastating of songs from Ghosteen. While Cave introduces it by playfully teasing a new touring member, pianist Carly, then announcing Warren Ellis with the words: “This is Warren. He’ll sing this song. He’s not new, in any way,” the content of this tune is no laughing matter. A profoundly graceful contemplation of accepting loss for eternity, it is one of Cave’s rare so(m)ber poems in which materialism bluntly trumps idealistic piety. “And everyone has a heart / and it’s calling for something / and we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are / and horses are just horses / and their manes aren’t full of fire, the fields are just fields / and there ain’t no Lord”, whispers Cave as many fans weep. Several quieter tunes follow, including the magnificent “Carnage” from the eponymous album.
The show’s second half is mostly Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s greatest hits, and the preaching, cursing, and scorning are back. “Tupelo” and “Red Right Hand” unsurprisingly draw out the biggest singalongs, while “The Mercy Seat” is underwhelming with a new arrangement that removes Ellis’ psychotic violin string destruction from the forefront. Nevertheless, it’s “The Mercy Seat”, so there’s no shortage of ecstasy. After “The Ship Song”, another must-include ballad, comes “Higgs Boson Blues”, a latter-day classic and a prime low-key showcase for Cave’s ponderous homilies. It’s also a decidedly less instructive version of Cave’s preaches that, recounted by a thoroughly unreliable and insecure narrator, gets to take off instantly.
“Can’t remember anything at all,” starts (and ends) Cave slowly, diving into seven delirious extended verses. “And if I die tonight, bury me in my favorite yellow patent leather shoes / With a mummified cat and a cone-like hat / that the caliphate forced on the Jews”, howls Cave, as a woman in the front takes off a Star of David necklace and throws it at Him. He picks it up and shakes it back at the audience while screaming (as he always does), “Can you feel my heartbeat? Can you feel my heartbeat? BOOM BOOM BOOM!” It is one of the most intense moments of the evening and a ploy he will repeat until the end of the show as the crowd sings his praises.
“City of Refuge”, a most disorderly highlight from 1988’s Tender Prey is, at least in my opinion, the most valuable addition to the new tour. More percussion-heavy and a quarter-beat slower as played live, it is an old-school rock ‘n’ roll banger with a typically canonical narration about the sins of the flesh. “You better run, and run, and run (to the City of Refuge)”, proclaims He, while the masses chant and stomp, raising an enormous cloud of dust and sweat that practically obscures the stage. “White Elephant”, perhaps a minor work relative to the overall quality of Carnage, is an appropriate closer. An aggressive, minimalistic song dedicated to the US Republican party, in which Cave spits that he will “shoot you all for free if you so much as look at me”, before the tune, ironically, breaks out as gospel, with back vocals coming to the front to promise us a “kingdom in the sky”. It doesn’t matter if you believe any of this, so long as you feel completely in the moment. Ultimately, Cave’s music is complex and intimate, so it would be reductive and perhaps unnecessary to analyze it in a purely performative context.
That evening, Berlin was also one of merely a handful of cities to be honored with a double encore, the latter which featured three glorious and seldom-played tunes. But first, we quiet down and turn inward with tears of tenderness and sadness. “Into My Arms” is a classic that gets everyone to hug their companions and gently swing side to side while singing softly; it is an adequate introduction to “Vortex”, a 2006 b-side that we’re lucky to hear live in 2022. In Cave’s words, it is a simple song, a “small” song; so simple it could be a pop radio hit. But “Vortex” packs lyrics only Cave could deliver with deadpan vigor. “Step into the vortex, where you belong,” He beckons in the chorus, as the tender swinging from the song prior continues. Finally, there is the sublime “Ghosteen Speaks”, another unspeakably devastating tear from Ghosteen. It is a bizarrely intimate song for an otherwise cosmically exploding Cave, who ends on a delicately optimistic note, rejoicing in unison with His congregation in the face of the meaninglessness of life (and death).
At most of his other shows this tour, the well-known “I think my friends have gathered here for me” chant would have been enough to close an intimate and epic show, but Berlin gets lucky, and Cave reverts to his most feral and murderously poetic in a second encore. “Jack the Ripper” is a detonating surprise. He is deranged and screaming again, just like the mysterious woman who “rules his house with an iron fist”. “Henry Lee”, the legendary symbol of ’90s alt-rock, is also a surprise, sung in duet with one of the backing vocalists. It is performed differently from the lowkey ominous version He did with PJ Harvey, but it mesmerizes the crowd, who are old enough to remember the pomp that originally surrounded its release. (Cave and Harvey were lovers then, and the single cover features them kissing.) At last, “Mermaids” is the real closer of the night. Another favorite of mine and an unjustly overlooked treasure from 2013’s Push the Sky Away, “Mermaids” is another gentle mystification of the Poet’s worldview, seen through his imagined relationship with the eponymous mystical creatures.
The final balance of the night is seven bombastic bangers, eight tender ballads, and seven tunes that melodically and/or lyrically fall somewhere between the two. It’s a fine mixture that allows Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s fans to fully appreciate the enormity of their Shepherd’s artistry while cleansing themselves through crying, laughing, and screaming. What does Cave think of all this adulation? Despite his transparency in conversation with fans and the media, he is intellectually and emotionally opaque enough to never really let us know. At Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s shows, what matters is not what you believe but what you feel.