I’ve got a confession to make. Before yesterday I’d never seen any concerts by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and I’d never really listened to any of their music. I have many friends and some relatives who are gaga about the band, so when I saw that they were coming to The Forum in Inglewood, I thought to myself, “Let’s see what these guys are all about.” Now, I am the proud owner of a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds souvenir t-shirt.
The evening started slowly. When opening act Cigarettes After Sex started playing, the 17,500 seat arena was only about a quarter full. The ambient pop / shoegaze melodies of the band were performed well. Not being too familiar with these guys, either, I was initially pleased with their sound — the hypnotic beats, the dreamy guitars, the ambient synths, and the breathy tenor vocals. However, after their second song, this formula made me a bit sleepy. The monochromatic lighting design, which consisted of white LED backlighting and slowly drifting white spotlights, probably aided them in their assault on my wakefulness. Still, plenty of people were rooting the band on. One thing I noticed during their set, which became a little less evident later in the evening, was that the acoustics of the venue weren’t that great; there was annoying reverb, which echoed every hypnotic hit of the snare drum.
At 8:30 pm, the seats were all full, and the general standing area was pretty packed when Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds began their set with “Jesus Alone,” from their 2016 album, Skeleton Tree. Though the song — and much of the album — are said to reflect the mourning Cave was experiencing following the climbing accident that had recently claimed the life of his teenage son, the song’s refrain “With my voice / I am calling you” rang out like an invocation to his fans with whom I quickly discovered, comprised an essential ingredient of his show.
It is common to see a pit of fans with raised arms at any popular rock show, but there was a unique dynamic with these particular raised arms. Throughout the evening, Cave alternately walked and lurched back and forth all along the edge of the stage, and wherever he walked, the local batch of arms raised up to greet him as if they were plants reaching for sunlight. Whenever he strode away, they descended.
As fans know, the music is a hybrid of rock and avant garde atmospheric accompaniments over which Cave alternately sings and speaks lyrics that often sound more like spoken word performance art than singing; this dynamic allows him to improvise words throughout his songs, which he frequently did. For example, during his third song, “Higgs Boson Blues,” after he sang the lyric “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake,” he riffed and repeated, “And she melts in the California sun.”
The lighting design of the show was suitably minimalist. The backdrop was alternately lit with red and blue lights as well as with the projection of different arrangements of theater curtains, and, later, with some minimalist film clips. Meanwhile, the video feed of the band (and audience arms) which flanked the stage on both sides was presented in black and white. This minimalist design was a great complement to Cave’s alternately crooning and snarling performance. The Bad Seeds were mesmerizing. Even without Cave’s persona, their performance was amazing — especially when guitarist Warren Ellis picked up an electric violin and rocked out on it with one hand, waving it around and creating beatific John Cale-esque madness, while looking like Galileo on acid.
It’s difficult to point out the highlights of the set, because virtually every song they performed was great. That said, “Tupelo” and “Jubilee Street” prominently stood out for me. During the climax of “Jubilee Street,” there were a handful of people in the seated areas who stood out from their sections by standing up and rocking out in rapturous abandon. Talk about audience participation, Cave’s interactions with the audience also made the last three songs of the set — prior to the two song encore — very memorable. For “The Weeping Song,” Cave walked through the audience and stood on a tiny L-shaped catwalk, from where he directed the audience’s participation of clapping and singing “yeah yeah yeah”s. On “Stagger Lee,” he brought about 30 – 40 audience members onstage to sing along, and alternately to sit down or stand up, per his barking orders. And for “Push the Sky Away,” he deputized a burly fellow from the audience to help with orchestrating commands to the rest of the audience — specifically, to raise and lower their arms — but the fellow was a bit too giddy, lazy, or independently-minded to do it as Cave intended.
All in all, it was a great initiation for this reporter. There was not a dud in the setlist, which can be seen HERE. Cave is an enigmatic and energized performer, who is just as comfortable with handing his microphone to an audience member, while he claps his hands, as he is with taking a tissue from another audience member to use to blow his nose — for which he turned his back to the house. The balance of raw energy, concise yet wild musicality, storytelling, and audience interaction made this show a wondrous experience. For a group that’s been performing for around 35 years, their show is still opening eyes, and there is no other band I’ve seen or heard that is quite like them. Great stuff!