How I’ve gone this long without seeing Nick Cave live is beyond me, especially since I’ve always… well, “always been a fan” wouldn’t be accurate. (I own three of his albums.) More truthful would be to say that Nick Cave’s music has never, ever irritated me. Considering Cave’s extensive output, that’s saying something. Combine it with the full-blown “holy shit” moments his songs have given to me—like hearing “Nobody’s Baby Now” while nursing a $1 PBR at EJ’s in Portland, in 1997—well, Nick Cave finally demanded to be seen live.
If you’ve seen him, you know. If you haven’t, imagine a rail-thin circus ringmaster whipping a band of lions not out of but into aggressiveness. A flamboyant offspring of Valentino and Satan, Cave channels 55 years of romantic bandwidth into sharp, stinging things called “songs,” which are more like forays across continents than things you might sing in the shower. These forays are not for the faint of heart, or, evidently, for the young: tonight, he had a children’s choir backing him up, and when they exited the stage, they covered their ears and looked terrified.
Cave opened his set with songs from his newest album, Push the Sky Away. It is not a great album. For the first flat few songs—”We Know Who U R,” “Jubilee Street,” “Wide Lovely Eyes”—the cavernous auditorium, three-fourths full, stood politely. Surely, I thought, something would happen soon? “Higgs Boson Blues” helped, but seriously, those lyrics about Hannah Montana, people.
Alas, “From Her to Eternity” came next, and suddenly here was NICK CAVE, the guy to whom you hear rambling praises, the guy who friends never miss when he comes around, the guy who can burn a goddamned song to the ground in an afterthought. Cave included a lovely “O Children,” with the choir, from Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, and the ballad “Love Letter” delivered a special poignancy with the backing of his onstage string sextet. Throughout the night, though, it was the louder, older songs that came off the best—”Jack the Ripper,” “The Mercy Seat,” “Stagger Lee,” “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry,” “Tupelo.” Or, as my resident Nick Cave expert remarked knowingly upon recognizing my bewildered recollection of these songs, after I came home: “All the hits.”
If these songs are hits, I am a chihuahua. They are ugly, salacious proposals to enter into a dirtier world. They build and shift and rumble and explode. They are the original idea of rock ‘n’ roll put into practice: churning machines, essentially, about sex and possession and murder, made more harrowing through mutual amplification and consuming everything in their path.
So yes. I understand now.