It seemed a tad too familiar at first: he strolled onto the stage after the band had assembled, waved a brief “hello” to the crowd, and launched straight into the night’s set with “We No Who U R”–the opening track from the latest Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away. It was little over a year ago that Cave & co. first toured in support of the record (their first since 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!), and at the show I caught in Nashville, they opened their set in the exact same fashion. It appeared odd, for a band that hadn’t toured in five years to travel across the world in support of the same album two years in a row; only recently was it revealed that many of the dates on this tour will coincide with screenings of the new documentary film 20,000 Days on Earth—lending (somewhat specious) rationale to the decision. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, I was not at all prone to complain about another opportunity to catch one of most thrilling live acts around.
The band followed up the opening song with “Jubilee Street,” in direct accordance with the sequence of the set I attended last year. An engaging song, no doubt, but something felt off in my world: I had rushed home early from work to hit the road with my boyfriend, and was still feeling worn from long days of planning my own band’s upcoming show, sorting out merchandise orders, and spending late nights working on multiple blog posts that seem only to be going in circles. I glanced over to the side and spotted two fellows moving down the row in front of me, coming to a standstill in my line of vision: true to my usual luck in such matters, they were of the six-foot-plus variety, and had clearly arrived with the intention of drinking more than listening. Things started to look especially grim for folks in my row when one of the two Paul Bunyans (the one with the more pronounced beer gut, wildly swaying his hips in some bizarre, hypnotic variation of a hula dance—at least, that’s the best I could make of it) pulled out an iPad and proceeded to take a video of the entire song, with the device hoisted above his head like a prize trophy. I must at least give him credit for keeping up with the hip action the whole time.
As I contemplated the probability of this turning into a terribly unpleasant live experience, something snapped. Cave had been wandering about the edge of the stage, laying his bony fingers upon the heads and hands of his adoring minions (as he is known to do); but when the band dove into the middle instrumental section of the seven-minute epic, Cave hurled his microphone across the stage and plopped down at the piano, unfurling a top melody with his right hand as the theater reverberated with the thud of the hot mic. Soon after, Warren Ellis could be seen tossing his electric guitar towards a monitor (as if it were a used Kleenex) and trading off for his violin, forcing a wail from the catgut as his stationary five-string began feeding back. It dawned on me that the sound mix coming from the PA was not quite what it should be, but the Seeds were (clearly) not about to let a subpar sound job stand in the way of delivering what their fans came for. As the slightly chaotic, beautifully orchestrated arrangement of the song’s performance swelled into its third wind, raw energy spread through the theater like wildfire. This was the energy I recalled so distinctly from last year’s performance—and here was the evidence that it was no mere fluke. “I’m transforming/I’m vibrating/Look at me now.” He was. And we did.
By the end of the song, Cave was wandering in and out of the orchestra pit—the sound man bolting onstage repeatedly to unravel the length of his microphone cable, while simultaneously trying to prevent its stand from tipping over (again). Meanwhile, a captivated audience offered their shoulders, hands, faces, and seats as support for the singer to climb over and above the crowd. It was, quite simply, the most dignified and enthralling act of crowd-surfing I have ever witnessed. As the set wore on, variations from last year’s sequence revealed themselves: the primitive pounding of “Tupelo,” often reserved for later in the program, came much earlier this time, and it was obvious to those paying attention that the stakes were set high tonight (which happened to be the opening night of this tour, following a one-off appearance at Bonaroo last weekend). After the searing dynamics of “Red Right Hand,” the quiet (yet subtly perverse) gracefulness of “Mermaids,” and the doubled octave piano action of “The Weeping Song,” something gave once more. “I wanna tell you about a girl…”
“From Her to Eternity” kicked into gear, and I found myself uncontrollably shaking in time to the staccato jolts that characterize one of the most unforgettable piano arrangements I can think of. An all-time favourite from a catalogue replete with all-time favourites, I was overjoyed to be hearing it live a second time, and quickly fell under its insistent spell: the Bunyan brothers had departed by now; I could sense my distractions dissipating, and felt the crowd around me falling into a similar trance. My heart stopped as I looked up and saw the lean, startling figure of Nick Cave moving closer and closer to where I stood (and mind you, I was in row K, a decent ways back from the front of the stage); I instantly reverted to a primal schoolboy mentality, hastily pushing through the gap between two seats in front of me to join the crowd gathering around his golem-like movements.
Then it hit me. The absurd beauty of it all, like a ton of enlightenment-inducing bricks. All of my concerns about work and daily obligations had fallen away somewhere back on “Jubilee Street,” and here I stood, gazing adoringly up at the figure of a six-foot Australian troubadour, belting a thirty-year-old song and transmitting private currents of electricity from his fingertips through the hands of his hordes. Like some kind of messiah, some kind of savior. Like the Church of Christ without Christ from Wise Blood—with Jacques Brel’s progeny at the pulpit.
Still enraptured, my mind roamed through various scattered thoughts on God and religion. As someone with not much practical (but tremendous symbolic) interest in both topics, I felt torn: torn between my natural reticence to blindly accept any kind of Messianic figure (whether it be a charismatic dictator, a benevolent carpenter’s son, or the frontman of a rock group) and my conditioned awareness of the need for some type of holy figure in one’s life; of how we all desire an effigy upon whom to project our fears, hopes, dreams, and nightmares; someone to soak up the disordered energy of our messy lives and return it to us as pure being. We might not even need this savior’s assistance very often, but every now and again, it is necessary to recharge our spirits—to reacquaint ourselves with the mysteries of life, which made us want to love it in the first place. These were the thoughts running through my mind as I looked up at Mr. Cave with the vacant stare of a stoned teenager. And I felt recharged.
The remainder of the show was nothing short of my high expectations: “West Country Girl;” “Into My Arms;” “Higgs Boson Blues;” “Stagger Lee;” “The Mercy Seat.” I felt the slightest tinge of disappointment when the band launched into “God is in the House” during audience request time (a great song, but one which I had already seen him perform last year); they did not hear or seize upon my suggestion (“Your Funeral … My Trial”), but no one can really be faulted in such a win-win scenario. Indeed, as the verses wore on and Cave painted the picture of a town on its knees, “As quiet as a mouse/Since the word got out/From the north down to the South/For no one’s left in doubt/There’s no fear about/If we all hold hands and very quietly shout ‘Hallelujah’/God is in the house,” it all felt somehow right: right—that in an age with idiocy, lunacy, and zealotry as its defining characteristics, we should all be gathered here to be reminded of how beautiful these foolish things can be when painted with appropriate artistry.
As the keyboard part signaling the opening bars of “Push the Sky Away” dispersed its ethereal drone through stacks of speakers, I knew the night was drawing to a close; I knew this was likely to be the last song before the encore, and I dreaded having to say goodbye. Having heard the record dozens of times already, I know the words before they are spoken, yet I am profoundly grateful to hear them spoken once more. “Some people say that it’s just rock’n’roll/But it gets you right down to the soul/You’ve gotta just keep on pushin’/Keep on pushin’/Push the sky away.”
The lights come up—the building roars with applause, whistles, and screams. After being given just enough time to gather our bearings and prepare for the finale, the band returns to the stage with “The Ship Song,” a straightforward and gorgeous piano ballad which helps to buoy the general mood of foreboding (in light of the impending closing number). Still saddened by the knowledge that it will all soon be over, I am anxious to find out what that last number will be—and, as though my secret wishes had been telepathically communicated to the stage, the Seeds launch into “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”. Various anecdotes tell of the song’s origins as a lullaby employed by Cave to rock his firstborn child to sleep, and that image comes to mind as I think of us all being returned to the outside world upon the same note. As the music charges forward, I revisit the familiar narrative of Henry traveling down the road of that album’s titular dream—overwhelmed by the haunting experiences of childhood; spellbound by their grotesque glory.
The show could easily have ended with the beautiful closing line of “Henry” (“And I went on down that road”), and I reasonably expected it would. But Cave speaks once more, explaining they are about to perform something they haven’t performed in a number of years. And here comes the “Lyre of Orpheus:” “Orpheus sat gloomy in his gardening shed/Wondering what to do…” From the old west to the ancient Greeks (perhaps via Cocteau?), we reach the end of this journey in a daze of bewildered awe. The buzzing from the crowd is still palpable long after the house lights have returned, as droves of spectators drift down the aisles with looks of joyous exasperation. As though we had all achieved the most amazing orgasm, and are now in complete (albeit exhausted) harmony with our place in the universe.
The outside world is at once a pale shadow of the euphoric carnival from which we’ve emerged, and a brighter place than it was when we entered. The night seems full of possibilities, as throngs spread about the facade of the Palace Theater, still abuzz in the afterglow of their experience and—as though the sexual overtones couldn’t be any more obvious—lighting cigarettes to further unwind. A conversation with friends reveals that a man sitting next to them was an orthopedist handing out Spongebob Squarepants-themed earplugs to those in need; and earlier on, Jim James was spotted trying to figure out on which side of the theater his seat was located. As we share these anecdotal recollections with one another, I feel as though some sense of balance has been restored in my life, and I wonder if anyone else feels something similar: as though the coloured squares of a Rubix cube were finally in proper alignment, and everything had been returned to its natural order.
We walk down an alley towards our parked car, and I hum the chorus to “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”, shuffling my feet in time to the melody. There are many things I need to get back to working on now—many tasks to complete, expectations to fulfill, and things to look forward to. And I went on down the road…