By Nikki M. Mascali
You don’t just go see a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert. You experience it, and the music permeates you like the sweat that clung to singer Cave’s crisp white shirt by show’s end.
Friday’s performance at New York’s legendary Beacon Theatre, the second of a three-night sold-out run, was a night of wild, ranging emotions, from airy (opener “We No Who U R”) and moody (“Jubilee Street”) to hard and heavy (standout “From Her to Eternity”) and downright intense (“Stagger Lee”).
It was a setlist that spanned the vast 30-year catalog of the band – which also features Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey, Barry Adamson, Conway Savage, Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunos – and included many tracks from the recently released “Push the Sky Away.”
For the first nine songs, there were 25 people on stage: Cave, the Bad Seeds, a string ensemble and background singers consisting of the Harlem Voices choir, Shilpa Ray and Sharon Van Etten, fresh off her fantastic six-song show-opening set. Their vocals added an almost holy contradiction to Cave’s often dark and sinister baritone, especially on “Mermaids.”
But while you’d think that Cave is just a morose, severe and even reclusive musician, he owns the stage, stalking left and right with his mic (so much so that its wire repeatedly knocked over Cave’s setlist stand – and took out a roadie) and engaging with the rapt crowd, encouraging them to move closer, even going down to sing among them at one point. In fact, during “Higgs Boson Blues,” Cave grabbed three audience members’ hands and held them to his chest as he sang, “Can you feel my heartbeat?”
That doesn’t mean Cave and company have gone soft, though, even as they delivered a stunning and touching rendition of “Love Letter.” In-your-face songs like “Jack the Ripper” and the expletive-laden “Stagger Lee,” during which Ellis thrashed about on a violin and broke several strings, was an apt reminder that the group is still just as violent as it’s always been.
“Stagger Lee” ended the set proper, and the band encored with the thunderous “Tupelo” and the lush and symphonic “Push the Sky Away.”
Thirty years in, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have the nuances of being on stage down to a single hand signal from Cave. While you are often unable to lift your eyes from the lithe, energetic singer throughout the course of the show, you’re not just watching him or individual members of the band, whose musicality is very much on display. You’re watching an enigmatic animal that is before you to give you its very last breath.