Nick Cave is more relevant and astounding than ever; he and his band, The Bad Seeds (Warren Ellis, George Vjestica, Jim Sclavunos, Martyn Casey, Thomas Wydler and Larry Mullins) are currently on tour in the U.S. and have European tour dates ready to finish off the year. Having seen the man (“he’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru”) live and in person more than half a dozen times, it’s clear that he’s more wildly alive than ever. With his well-suited tall stature, thin frame, jet-black hair and nearly flawless fair skin, Cave is a sight to behold and, when he starts performing, he and his band almost light the stage afire. After suffering an unfathomable loss in 2015, Cave has publicly turned tragedy and grief into art with his 2016 album Skeleton Tree as well as the film, One More Time With Feeling (released last year, directed by Andrew Dominik).
This tour marks the first time that Cave has played North America with the Bad Seeds in three years. I recently saw him play at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and, just last week, at the Beacon in Manhattan where he performed for two sold-out nights (no opener, just the main course for over two hours without hesitation until an encore that served as the perfect denouement where he invited over thirty people onto the stage). They played a lot of the new album, a few songs from 2013’s Push the Sky Away and then some tried and true classics, such as “The Mercy Seat,” “Red Right Hand,” “Tupelo” and “The Ship Song.” “Tupelo” was especially rollicking and energy-filled: with a backdrop of trees flailing in a storm, Cave wove a tale of chaos, loss and drowning in an all-too-real flood (where “no sleep runs this deep”) that claimed many lives and is also the birthplace of “the King,” Elvis Presley. When Cave sings of a nightmare, you wake up and hold on tight.
The show at the Beacon Wednesday night (June 14th) opened with a few tracks from the latest album, Skeleton Tree and we were all reeling from beauty mingled with a fierce, ruthless sadness and, then, Cave pulled a young boy onto the stage (wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “Bad Seed”) and held onto his hand while he sang and then cried out “With my voice, I am calling you” from the song, “Jesus Alone.” At that moment, I was filled with a visceral ache as I watched. I had an epiphany while witnessing this: Cave is a wonderful artist because he reminds one of other great artists, of the progenitors who came before him in a long line of rock and roll poets, wordsmiths and artists. I was reminded of Hamlet and T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for the young boy on stage did a little crab walk/dance and I was immediately recalled back to when Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet spoke of aging to Polonius and said “For yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.”
This line in Hamlet inspired T.S. Eliot to write “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot was the master of literary allusions and if he could cite Shakespeare then why shouldn’t Cave, even unwittingly? This is what great art does: it mirrors the work of those who have come before and morphs it into something new, unexpected and exciting. It seems like all of the emotionally powerful songs played by the Bad Seeds are able to unleash such intensity because the audience gives Cave such palpable energy and both parties are able to feed off that energy. In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, All About Eve, Anne Baxter recalls the audience’s applause for Margo Channing as being like “waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up.”
This is what the audience’s reaction is like at a Bad Seeds’ show: it makes the magic of the night possible. During the encore, the very last song of the night—after one hell of a performance of “The Weeping Song” and “Stagger Lee”—was the title track from 2013’s Push the Sky Away. With dozens of people on stage, when Cave sang that “Some people say it's just rock and roll, oh but it gets you right down to your soul” and physically reached out to many, it’s fair to say that everyone could feel that this was more than just music and that it proved how powerful art can be when fully realized.
One of the greatest songs to see the Bad Seeds perform live is “Jubilee Street” (from 2013’s Push the Sky Away) as it tells a tale that results in the most life-affirming, climatic lyrics: “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying, look at me now.” To hear these words sung, shouted, and almost chanted over and over is like a drug that fills the listener with hope for reinvention and rebirth. This notion of changing, “transforming” and “flying” must be what Cave feels every night he’s on stage and it recalls back to something exceptional and rhapsodic that Toni Morrison wrote in her 1977 novel, Song of Solomon that says (which I gave to Cave as a gift on this tour): “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”