Against a violet backdrop and to the subharmonic pulse of an ominous bass loop, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds walked out onto the stage in near-darkness, and for the next two hours Cave preached, gesticulated and crooned to the accompaniment of clanging madness and bittersweet ballad blues. By the end of the evening the Shrine’s sold-out capacity, if they were not believers at the start, were converts by the end.
A dreamy set by openers Warpaint lulled the Shrine into a soporific trance in anticipation of Cave’s fire and brimstone. Fittingly lit with cold blues, violets and electric blue rope, the dream-pop quartet’s ringing chords and keys layered rich reverb, jangle and haunting feedback over pulsing drums. Their beautiful but authoritative voices held onto longing harmonies as if sung by angels too close to earth to escape the weather, narrating the pounding rhythms of the urban malaise below with bold persistence.
But their singing never took precedence over the music itself, which was at times rhythmically unpredictable. Tiny nuanced shifts kept their effectively monochromatic style interesting, embracing repetition but defying redundancy. This was exemplified by their drawn-out closer “Elephants.” Starting with a repetitive, syncopated guitar riff, the persistent song repeatedly fell into bass-led jams that veered near death, the beat almost falling apart before regrouping, then falling apart again, a rollercoaster of hypnotic trance and misdirection that resembled Modest Mouse’s wandering disco fugues, or Mazzy Star with a shot of vitamin B.
It’s a shame Warpaint’s set couldn’t transition directly into the bass loop that ushered in The Bad Seeds, as it would have been perfect. As soon as the thin man appeared the audience went wild. He greeted them with a warm hello before proceeding into the stark questioning of “We Real Cool” from 2013’s Push the Sky Away, followed by “Jubilee Street” of the same album. Unlike the album version, this one featured an accelerating buildup and crescendo, snowballing into ever-higher intensities. The purple hues of the low lighting suddenly broke into white and amber as it became clear that chaos was drawing close. Every instrument swelled to higher registers as bearded madman Warren Ellis’ wailing violin ascended to a screech that brought to mind the sonic cries of his work in The Dirty Three. The thrumming chaos shattered to a close as he launched his bow across the stage, a missile trailing spent horsehair like spidersilk.
The fourteen-song set and five-song encore gave a fair sampling of the band’s 30 years, all the way back to 1984’s “From Her to Eternity.” What sets the band’s live performance from the recordings is that many of the discordant songs are meant to be felt. Cave’s lanky frame to be seen for what he is, a storyteller of unfettered vision. For the full two hours, he paced and addressed the audience like a man who cannot get something off his mind, warning people of what’s coming but getting nothing but smiles and cheers in return, only fueling him more. The mesmerizing lighting was like a seventh member, giving lightning to the thunder of “Red Right Hand” and muzzle flashes to the gunshots of “Stagger Lee.” There were many other surprises and reinterpretations, sometimes subtle but other times completely new, such as a blistering fuzz-guitar solo Ellis added to the end of “Mermaids.”
For thirty years, Mr. Cave has created a unique musical vision with The Bad Seeds. Even those who are put off by his recordings would find a theatrical charm in the effect he can have on a crowd, at times causing girls to swoon and couples to embrace and sway. Other times, he evokes the sort of amoral evil whose literary counterpart could be the tireless Western gore of Cormac McCarthy. It is a reminder not of what reigns but what is real. Cave’s harrowing vision is one that ceaselessly reminds you what comprises this world whether you like it or not, and he will make sure you will never forget.
Set List for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
We Real Cool
Red Right Hand
From Her to Eternity
West Country Girl
In My Arms
God Is in the House
The Weeping Song
Higgs Boson Blues
Push the Sky Away
Jack the Ripper
The Ship Song
Do You Love Me?
The Lyre of Orpheus