It’s been one month and I’m just beginning to come down from seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform live two nights in a row. I’ve been feeling emotionally wrecked, even a little depressed. Don’t get me wrong, the shows we’re outstanding; but the band doesn’t tour that often and not knowing when I’ll see them perform next leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. Scared, actually, that there may not be another time. The only thing that has distracted me from my emotional low are all-consuming work deadlines that, at least, have provided me with many late nights listening to the band to fill the deafening silence of an empty, dark office.
Cause people often talk about being scared of change,
but for me I’m more afraid of things staying the same.
‘Cause the game is never won
by standing in any one place for too long.
-Nick Cave, “Jesus of the Moon.”
I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave for about twenty-five years now. With very few exceptions, such as my parents, I can’t say I’ve had a “relationship” with too many people for that long. Friends and lovers naturally, and sometimes sadly, come and go. Or, at least, they wax and wane. Not Nick Cave. He’s been with me consistently through all those years. I’ve turned to him and his music looking for answers or understanding in my darkest, most despairing moments. But he also accompanied me during my happiest day as I walked down the aisle to get married. There are other bands I’ve followed for a long time, but none have so consistently held my attention, fed my obsession, and fueled me with the incredible highs and lows I go through before and after seeing them perform live. I get as excited today, if not more so, for a new record or a new performance, as I ever have.
I first saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live on March 1, 1989, at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore. I wasn’t very familiar with the band at the time, but my great friend Todd knew I would love them, and he was right. Ever since that fateful night I have been obsessively hooked. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of NC&TBS, and to this day you never quite know what to expect with each new release. It’s part of their magic. But what doesn’t change are the story-teller lyrics and the tight instrumentation; whether they’re pounding out the most violent, crude rock and roll songs, or crooning gut-wrenching, emotionally devastating songs of love and loss.
A writer first and foremost, Nick Cave is a Renaissance man. His lyrics have been likened to music legends Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. He’s also a critically-acclaimed author of novels, books of poetry, and screenplays. He has scored films with band- and soul-mate Warren Ellis. He’s appeared in films and has lectured on the art of the love song. He is a phenomenon that has been written about by scholars in a book of essays collected to “generate new ways of seeing and understanding Cave’s contributions to contemporary culture.” Cave’s works can be challenging and often disturbing, but it’s real and raw, full of pain and beauty that reveals more with each subsequent listen, read, or watch as you take time to digest the many layers of meaning.
The last time I saw the Bad Seeds was in September 2008, when they performed two nights in Seattle and where I was lucky enough to get tickets to both shows. While the sets were slightly different each night, both were solid rock and roll shows. The energy was so immense that I thought Nick would self-combust on stage, and with a heightened sense of concern and excitement about this possibility I also vowed that the next time they came to the U.S. I would follow them on the West Coast portion of their tour.
Now, almost five years later, it’s January 2013 and the new album Push the Sky Away is about to be released, with a handful of North American dates having been announced. Only one date is on the West Coast, and none in the Pacific Northwest. I try to be patient; I know Cave wouldn’t be so careless with the hearts of his West Coast fans, and I know there will be more dates. But this isn’t my only worry. I’m also going to be in Europe around the time of the U.S. shows, and looking at the dates I’m pretty sure if more shows are added it will be after I get back. But I’m not entirely convinced, and the waiting starts to consume me. I check the NC&TBS website and their Facebook page several times a day to make sure I don’t miss any announcements.
Then, finally, they announce more dates.
The good news is the West Coast shows are scheduled for after we return from our trip to England and Barcelona. The bad news is that, having just gotten back from vacation, and with pending work deadlines, there’s no way I can take the time off to go to all the shows. I wrestle with the problem, knowing that I have to be ready to jump on tickets the moment they’re released, as they always sell out quickly. The Seattle show, on a Sunday, is a no-brainer; but once is definitely not enough. Surprisingly, there is no Portland show on the tour. However, the Vancouver show just happens to be on Saturday night. Craig and I have been talking about a Vancouver road trip for quite some time and this provides our perfect excuse. While it’s not the entire West Coast tour, it’s two dates plus a trip to Vancouver to boot.
Our friend Hope will join us at the Seattle show. She’s a long-time fan as well, but hasn’t seen them perform live. I’m excited and envious of her. When I was an undergrad I had a French lit professor that would talk about how he envied his students as they read many of the great existentialist classics he assigned for the first time. Even though multiple readings didn’t lessen the delight for him, and, in fact, more meaning could be discovered with each subsequent reading, there was nothing like those first moments of discovery and enlightenment.
Like my professor from so many years ago, I was really excited to be there for Hope’s first live NC&TBS performance because it’s not what you might expect. First of all, Nick Cave is a showman extraordinaire. If you’d only heard his recorded music you might not think he’d be so charming and so engaged with his audience. You might not think that he would go out of his way to touch the hands of his worshippers and look straight into their eyes as he rants, raves, preaches, and screams. You might not think he would sing every word of each song, whether it’s from the latest record or from the first, with such raw energy as if the passion, lust, violence, anger or love were burning him alive from the inside out. But you would be wrong.
For me, it’s only by being surrounded in the live presence of their music that I can begin to understand what it means and what the band intended. Seeing NC&TBS live always changes my perception of the recorded songs. I come away with new appreciation of the songs I love and powerful feelings about songs that I didn’t know I felt so strongly about. A NC&TBS performance isn’t just a copy of their recorded material. This band needs to be experienced live.
The band has gone through changes over its thirty years, and this year was significant. This record and tour was the first without guitarist and founding member Mick Harvey, who left in 2009 and who had been performing and writing with Nick Cave since the early Birthday Party days. It also included the return of Barry Adamson, who left the band in the late 1980s after the release of Your Funeral, My Trial. There’s no doubt that, because of this, Push the Sky Away has a different sound from previous records. It’s hypnotic and luscious with a quiet urgency that builds to a crescendo; something especially noticeable live. Cave describes it in these terms: “If I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push the Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren’s loops are its tiny, trembling heart-beat.”
Both shows started out with the same four songs from the new album: “We No Who U R,” “Jubilee Street,” “Wide Lovely Eyes,” and “Higgs Boson Blues.” As Cave sang “Jubilee Street,” with the desperate sound of Warren Ellis’ violin strings as part of the duet, two things came to my mind. First, I literally could feel my heart pounding with the urgency and desperation of the lyrics, and I was half expecting Nick to go through some sort of visible, physical metamorphosis right in front of our eyes as he was singing the closing lyrics. “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing / I’m flying, look at me / I’m flying, look at me now.” Secondly, the song is another reminder of a desire for change and redemption – a common theme heard throughout the NC&TBS catalog.
Critics often seem to want to pin down the band by saying each new album is a turning point in their music style. Particularly, if they are quieter records then they are suddenly more mature. And maybe Push the Sky Away is a turning point; maybe it is more mature. It’s certainly a different sound from their other records, and the process of writing and composing the songs was different than the typical Bad Seeds “treatment,” as Cave says in The Making of Push the Sky Away video.
The beauty of listening to NC&TBS music over so many years is seeing the changes and developments. But that change is not always linear – it’s just change. In a recent interview, Cave said he sees his band as “a breathing, growing thing; you’ve got to feed it different things to keep it alive.” No two records are the same and the sound changes, but the core values always stay the same. Themes of religion, violence, birth, death, sex, love and loss are ever-present as Cave takes on the role of teacher, god, preacher, lover, father, son, and outlaw – all rolled into one without a clear line of where one stops and the other starts. Providing a complex lyrical palette that’s placed alongside a heady mix of loud guitars, raucous piano-bashing, and violently plucked strings are what make the Bad Seeds what they are. But the tables can easily turn when Cave performs the quietest, saddest love song accompanied only by his piano. Those songs don’t appear live very often these days. The recent shows have been unabashedly rock and roll, and it appears as if the band is having the time of their lives. We witnessed this as NC&TBS followed opening each night’s set with their new songs with a series of older classics, ranging from their first release in 1984 to 1994’s Let Love In – including “From Her to Eternity,” “Deanna,” and “Jack the Ripper” – with all the power and passion as if they were brand new songs.
Both shows did have a quiet interlude that included the pleading and hopeful “Love Letter.” The first night it was followed by “Into My Arms,” and on the second by “People Ain’t No Good” alongside “No More Shall We Part.” These are tear-jerkers in the best sense of the term; all painfully beautiful and sad while still being raw and honest. The interlude was a brief one, and the rock and roll show resumed with “The Mercy Street” and “Red Right Hand,” culminating with a most amazing rendition of “Stagger Lee.” Only Nick Cave can make such violent, crude lyrics sound so damn sexy. I would be concerned that I felt that way except that, watching the audience, it was clear I wasn’t the only one.
The encore both nights spanned the NC&TBS career with “Tupelo,” from the 1985 release The First Born is Dead, before ending with the title track from Push the Sky Away, where Cave concluded the song by singing, “And some people / Say it’s just rock ‘n roll / Oh, but it gets you / Right down to your soul.” Indeed it does, Mr. Cave. Indeed it does.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gets into my soul unlike any other band. I will admit I have probably lost any real critical filter when it comes to their music, but I know how it makes me feel and I know the electricity they bring to their live shows. If someday that changes, hopefully I can admit it and I’ll still have thirty years of amazing music and memories. For now, however, their new music is as vital as it’s ever been.