Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Queen Elizabeth Theatre 22/6/17
Nick Cave released his latest 16th album, last September’s Skeleton Tree, following unspeakable loss: in July 2015, his 15-year-old son Arthur died in an accidental cliff-fall near the family’s home in Brighton, England. Cave had completed most of the album’s lyrics by that time but rewrote many of them to reflect his personal grief and mourning. Although rock’s Prince of Darkness has played with the theme of death – made theatre of it, even – for over 30 years with his band the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree finds Cave shifting from his usual narrative drive in lieu of broader, more obtuse emotional strokes. Skeleton Tree is austere, filled with droning ambience and unresolved chords that stretch out the melancholy. Even the album’s packaging and title convey austerity.
Considering Skeleton Tree’s overall aesthetic and more significantly the circumstances that surrounded the album’s making, the projected weight of Cave’s performances on his current tour was heavy. But he and the Bad Seeds performed with utmost vigour last Thursday at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, as if defiantly shouting “I’m still alive!” nose-to-nose with tragedy.
Cave opened the evening himself with no support act. From a seat onstage, he began with Skeleton Tree’s “Anthrocene”. But he quickly abandoned his sombre perch by the next song, “Jesus Alone”, and followed its processional drums with “Magneto”. Its piano chords dangled forever in the nearly 3000 capacity theatre; amazing how he could fill such a vast space with so little sound.
Despite Cave’s reputation for all things noir, his piano love ballads stood as some of his finest, most moving moments. “The Ship Song” and “Into My Arms” carried unfiltered beauty and lightness that he did not match for the rest of the night.
Cave’s energy was difficult to match too. “I want to tell you about a girl,” he said. The audience came unglued hearing that familiar spoken line that ushers in the slaughterhouse madness of “From Her to Eternity”. The band could have collapsed the walls and ceiling as the song climaxed; Cave dropped to the floor, smacking his mic with a “THUD.” Caught up in the moment at the end of “Eternity”, he whipped his mic across the stage resulting in another “THUD.” “Jubilee Street” was, in no graceful terms, a fucking rock epic. The torturous “Tupelo” was simply menacing. The band performed the acoustic guitar-tinged “The Mercy Seat” as if they were hurling towards death, propelled by rickety violin with Cave repeating the declaration “I’m not afraid to die.”
Even during the most heartbreaking, soul-crushing moments, like Skeleton Tree’s “I Need You”, Cave could not help but dance, as if he was taunting sorrow by flaunting his vitality. Throughout the night, he floated back and forth across the edge of the stage, teasing the hands that reached up at him like the living dead crawling from its crypts. Rarely did he lock hands with any of them; instead, he glided his own just slightly above theirs, caressing the air between them. He accepted a red bouquet of flowers from the audience, interrupted the enveloping intensity of “Higgs Boson Blues” to cool himself with a paper fan another audience member passed him, and pointed out someone in the crowd: “You look like the guy from Grease. No, Saturday Night Fever. In the best possible way.” Cave broke into a chuckle. The band continued playing. “I don’t know why I said that.” Cave resumed crying out, “CAN YOU HEAR MY HEART BEAT!?”
After two hours, Cave made his way to the middle of the aisle and performed half of his first encore, “The Weeping Song”, from the audience. Next, during the swampy, jolting “Stagger Lee”, he invited fans onto the stage. They filled it until they completely surrounded him. “Fuckin’ Saturday Night Fever!” he exclaimed after spotting the same fan from earlier up there with him. “Sit down,” Cave curtly instructed everyone. He returned to the middle of the aisle where he concluded the evening with “Push the Sky Away”, closing the night with a motivational mantra, repeating: “You’ve gotta just keep on pushing it, keep on pushing it, push the sky away.”