If there’s one word that could be used to describe the music of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, it would be intense. The Australian band has been enchanting fans and collecting worldwide critical acclaim for over 20 years, and their most recent album, The Skeleton Tree, is an intimate, moving collection of songs that was partially inspired by the 2015 death of Cave’s 15 year-old son, Arthur.
It’s obvious that a Nick Cave show is going to be dark in tone, but the band seems to have reached an emotional apex with The Skeleton Tree; the Seeds performed seven out of the eight songs comprising that album at their show at Berkeley, California’s Greek Theater on June 24. That doesn’t mean that there was no levity to be found, however; after the stark opening trilogy of “Anthrocene,” “Jesus Alone,” and “Magneto,” Cave thanked the audience and glanced around the amphitheater to “take stock of this situation,” quipping that the Greek Theater “looks like it was designed by children.”
Whatever his thoughts on the venue’s design, the band’s set designer clearly made some of the Greek’s limitations work—a set of boxes of varying heights, outfitted with glow-in-the-dark tape around the edges, had been installed along the front of the stage. Cave’s reputation as a live performer is shored up by his willingness to get extremely close to those in the front rows; the boxes allowed him to move safely between the stage and the audience. His ability to both move among his public physically and to move them emotionally—not to get too philosophical here, although I suspect that Cave would approve—is brilliant.
That physicality and emotional openness is part of what makes Cave so unique as a performer. Stereogum writer Ryan Leas, in his evocative review of Cave and company’s recent show in Brooklyn, New York, describes it this way: “Yet throughout the show, Cave was on the lip of the stage as he always was, leaning forth and holding hands with audience members, staring right in their eyes and singing to them while the rest of the cavernous room looked on. They were little moments of intense connection, beyond the functionality or stunt it’d play as in most shows.”
While the Berkeley show’s setlist—and this tour’s setlists overall—focused heavily on 2016’s Skeleton Tree, the touring lineup of the Seeds particularly excel at reinvigorating older material. Fan favorite “The Mercy Seat” and the electric, Elvis-mythologizing “Tupelo” were standouts—both songs were made more immediate by the band’s energy and Cave’s tendency to sing while pacing the stage like a revved-up preacher. “From Her to Eternity” was a masterwork of percussive piano, creepy xylophone notes, and snarling vocals.
“Jubilee Street,” from 2013’s Push the Sky Away, also got a live makeover that drew surprised cheers from the audience—Cave and the band reworked the final minute of the song into a frenzied, almost Bacchanalian groove that seamlessly wove into Cave’s exultations of “I am flying/I’m vibrating/I’m transforming/Look at me now!” as he ran around the front of the stage, reached out to fans in the front row, and utilized some wonderfully awkward dance moves. The music industry may have undergone some radical changes during the Bad Seeds’ lengthy tenure as a band, but Cave and his band have a deep understanding of what makes a spectacular live show—and the experience to back it up.
Certainly, Cave makes a few concessions to how things have changed over the Seeds’ multi-decade career—see (or hear) Cave’s reference to the “angry little Tweets” of the antagonist in the performance of “Red Right Hand” above—but as a live performer, he also truly understands what his audience wants. I can’t help but think of the rapturous wave of outstretched hands that followed Cave as he wildly paced the stage as a metaphor, obvious as it may be; we are all reaching (or is it searching?) for something. Cave is, too—he may be a demigod to some rock fans, but he’s also a person who is currently healing from a horrific family tragedy. To end with the somewhat obvious metaphor: we reach together, and we heal together.
Current tour dates for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds can be found at the band’s website.
Photo: ami d/Creative Commons