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Live Review: Nick Cave at the Auditorium Theatre

| June 18, 2017

Nick Cave (photo by Tom Oldham)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, June 16, 2017
Review by Jeff Elbel

So much for the fourth wall.

Early during his concert at the Auditorium Theatre, Nick Cave blurred the line between the audience and the stage. By the end of the show, he had simply erased it. As the Australian-English artist sang the cathartic “Push the Sky Away” for the Bad Seeds’ final encore, the band were no longer visible. Hundreds of fans stood in Cave’s place on the storied stage, while Cave himself stood deep among the remaining crowd in the room. He was a messianic figure, supported by the hands of the audience and teetering on the backs of seats in order to see and sing above the crowd. The song’s lyrics provided a succinct summation of Cave’s gothic revival meeting:

And some people say it’s just rock and roll
Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul

The venue had transformed immediately from a seated theatre to standing room only as the show began, even as Cave himself took a seat at center stage to perform “Anthrocene.” Formidably-bearded sideman Warren Ellis sat close behind, leading the six-piece Bad Seeds from a baby grand piano. Cave’s voice bore terrible weight and religious intensity. The tone was well matched to the show, which drew heavily from 2016’s sorrowful Skeleton Tree album.

The chair onstage saw roughly as much use as the seats in the room. Cave arose, lanky and dark, to prowl the rim of the stage for “Jesus Alone.” It was the song that most directly addressed the 2015 loss of Cave’s teenaged son due to a cliff fall. The event had reshaped Skeleton Tree into a brave statement of intense grief, lending solace to others who have experienced tragedy.

You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur

“With my voice, I am calling you,” sang Cave, as if howling to be heard in a place beyond the physical world. Ellis sat to the side with a small synthesizer, playing an unsettling siren whine throughout the song.

A flickering strobe light cast an uneasy mood during “Magneto.” Cave took the hand of a woman in the front row and sang his shadowy blues directly to her. During the song, Cave motioned people to draw closer, surrounding him. He briefly lightened the mood by summarily dispersing them, but then called them back.

The sparsely-dressed stage allowed stark changes in mood from simple changes in light. “Higgs Boson Blues” was performed under eerie red light for a grim recitation that careened through a cautionary tale of Robert Johnson and the devil, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and lunatic scenes of Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. Cave leaned heavily into the crowd, as the Bad Seeds’ stark accompaniment built to white-knuckle intensity.

“I want to tell you about a girl,” declared Cave, launching into 1984’s “From Her to Eternity” from his first solo album. He jumped and sparred with Warren Ellis, who had taken up his violin. Cave then pounded at the piano before resuming his restless prowling of the stage. The Bad Seeds provided a throbbing pulse, throwing bolts of energy into the hall. Cave fell to his knees as Ellis wrenched caterwauling animal howls from his abused violin.

Read our 2009 Cover Story with Nick Cave

The show continued to weave old and new, as Cave tested the boundary between the stage and his audience further and further. During songs of retribution and ruin like “Tupelo,” it became clear the Cave was pulling spiritual energy from the crowd through direct physical contact. But he was also giving it back, amplified.

“Jubilee Street” began as the brooding tale of a streetwise girl who “had a history, but she had no past.” The song grew to revival fervor, leaving the Bad Seeds in sweat-soaked suits. Ellis toweled off afterward as if he had just finished a prize fight, while Cave offered slyly understated praise to his band. “Yeah, that was pretty good.”

Nick Cave, Auditorium Theatre, June 16, 2017. Photo by Curt Baran

Cave gave his all to his performance, sparing little time or energy for words between songs beyond emphatic thanks. But those words were honest. “No, really, I mean it,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
“Love Letter” was performed as an intimate duet between Cave at the piano and bassist Martyn Casey. As he played, Cave beckoned the crowd into singing the chorus. The mournful “Girl in Amber” and heartsick “I Need You” followed with further tales of loss and want.
The mood shifted to sizzling, sinister energy for “Red Right Hand,” as Cave waded fully into the crowd until hellish crimson light. In his guise as Old Scratch, he offered his followers new jobs and neighbors – likely at the high cost of the recipient’s soul.

As the Bad Seeds whipsawed between cool blues and rafter-splitting cacophony, someone in the clutch of fans pressing around Cave touched more than the hem of his garment. “That is sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Cave mockingly. “I need a safe space.” He then proceeded to wade even further into the sea of bodies and hands.
The main set concluded with another pair of Skeleton Tree tracks.

During “Distant Sky,” Cave played piano as singer Else Torp was projected overhead in spectral black and white. Cave arose to express the sense of cosmic betrayal in the face of tragedy.
  They told us our gods would outlive us
  They told us our dreams would outlive us
But they lied.

Afterward, Cave gave Ellis a brotherly embrace and kiss on the head. Following the album’s title track, Cave concluded his telling of the tale of Skeleton Tree and departed the stage.

“I’ve never seen people so high up,” Cave said upon returning for his encore. Peering through the lights into the stately hall’s third balcony, the people did indeed seem far away. So, after leading the triplet clap introducing “The Weeping Song,” Cave ventured out to get closer to them.

Returning to the stage, Cave pulled a woman from the crowd to dance with him as he sang “Stagger Lee.” Next, he pulled a couple who weaved and sang with him. Soon, scores of people were onstage, swaying to the profane tune about a murderous villain. Cave stared down a fan who was capturing the moment on his smartphone. “In come the devil, he’s got a fucking iPhone in his hand,” Cave improvised, replacing “pitchfork” with “iPhone.” “It’s not an iPhone?” he said, responding to the fan’s correction. “I’m sorry.”

After the song, Cave surveyed the scene in wonderment, as if just realizing the chaos he’d created. “I’m not sure what we do now,” he said. Cave motioned for the throng onstage to sit, and presented the Bad Seeds a final time. Everyone had returned to their feet, however, as Cave walked among the audience a final time with a powerful ray of determination and hope during “Push the Sky Away.”

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Category: Live Reviews, Weekly

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