The last time I saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, they played the Forum, a huge soulless place if there is one, but since I was in the pit, it worked marvelously. The last time I was supposed to see the band, they had booked the Staples Center, another sports arena venue I am truly not fond of, and this meant that the Bad Seeds were determined to give us the stadium experience. Was that too optimistic? Could they have filled the Staples? We will never know since the show (and the entire tour) got canceled due to the pandemic of course. When I heard Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had booked the Shrine for their comeback (instead of another stadium) I was rather pleased, at least it was not a sports arena. The downsized choice was easy to understand though, this was not a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert, but a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis show, so this was a bit different. I immediately got my ticket, but, a few weeks later, they announced another show at the Orpheum downtown LA: I was disappointed…. I greatly would have preferred to see them at a 1,900-seat theater than at a 6,300-seat venue. There was only one solution: buy another ticket and see them two nights in a row! Why not? We have been deprived of so many shows for almost two years, that I had no problem with the idea of seeing them twice in the same week.
In comparison to a Bad Seeds show, the setting was much lighter: some large spotlights, multiple mic stands, a drum kit, a grand piano, and a lone chair surrounded by amps and pedals. It was Warren’s chair, and he did not move much from it during both shows.
The Bad Seeds show at the Forum was pure firing energy, Nick Cave was a restless beast repeatedly jumping above the pit to meet the forest of the fans’ arms, whereas the shows at the Shrine and the Orpheum were much more tamed in comparison. Although they had explosive moments of Cave fury, they were quieter shows with many more songs performed on piano. The tone was, of course, heavily influenced by the two most recent albums, “Ghosteen” and “Carnage,’ born from unbearable grief after the death of Cave’s teenage son Arthur in 2015. Since Cave never had the chance to tour for “Ghosteen,” and since “Carnage” was a collaboration with Warren Ellis written during the pandemic, the current tour is a combination of both albums. The Ghosteen songs – and they were largely represented in the setlists – are anchored in deep gravitas, even profound sorrow but if the lyrics evoke existential questions, they are comforting, vulnerable, and very moving. The solemnity of the new songs resonated even more in a live setting.
Cave, Ellis, the backing singer, and another musician arrived on stage under a loud clamor coming from the crowd. It didn’t take long to realize that nothing had changed: Nick’s long and thin silhouette in a dark suit and white open shirt revealing a gold pendant shining on his chest — I was able to read Susie a bit later, the name of his wife – and Warren, all grey beard and hair, sitting most of the time, surrounded with electronic, violin and even a flute. The chemistry was immediate, and the magic operated at the first song.
With his long arms moving slowly in the air, Nick Cave remains one of the most expressive and engaging performers: all night long, he quickly moved back and forth from his grand piano to the front of the stage where he was interacting with the crowd. Warren Ellis ended counting almost all the songs, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,”… like a maestro commanding the show. Sitting on his chair, he was often raising arms and legs while playing violin, as if he was on a workout gym bench. It was actually quite extraordinary to think that all the music – when Cave was not playing piano – was coming from a tiny synthesizer resting on his lap, and whatever was playing the other multi-instrumentalist.
From “Spinning Song” to “Bright Horses” (featuring Warren’s surprising falsetto) to the very mournful “Ghosteen,” both shows started on a big “Ghosteen” ride, illuminating the shows with surreal imagery of king and queen’s hair as a stairway, horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord, or Papa and Mama bears. I had wondered what the live rendition of the ethereal soundscapes of the album would sound like, and the songs turned out to be haunting pieces. They were either played with Nick Cave on piano and Warren Ellis providing the ambient loops, or Cave directly addressing the crowd with profound conviction during the very long ones like “Hollywood” and its long winding poetry mixed with the old tale of Kisa and Buddha. It was certainly difficult ones to perform, but the crowds remained remarkably attentive.
The “Carnage” songs prolonged the magic with the titled song “Carnage,” dedicated to everybody, and beautifully harmonized by the three backing vocalists – T Jae Cole, Janet Rasmus, and Wendi Rose – who, all night long, appended ethereal vocals to the music, while the sighs of the two women’s silver long dresses – surely designed by Susie Cave –added a celestial note. The cinematic “Lavender Fields” was superbly sung in duet with Wendi Rose, who brought a warm and feminine touch to the beautiful tune and its “kingdom in the sky.” “Carnage” provided the most visceral numbers: “White Elephant,” with its slow throbbing tempo and menacing theme… but the Flaming-Lips-meets-Hey-Jude chorus, gloriously performed by the backing singers, arrived fast and the song mellowed down and didn’t turn to be as menacing as I would have imagined. However, “Hand of God” brought back in mind one of Cave’s most raucous numbers, and for a moment, he was back in the shoes of the scary red-handed devil character, he was back at jumping from right to left, spitting his rage, and reaching every arm stretching toward him. Except that this time he was screaming “hand of God.”
At both shows, Nick did a gut-wrenching version of “I Need You,” a show-stopper moment performed alone on piano, with discreet back-up voices joining his dramatic keys at the end of the song, that he pursued for a few minutes with a pulsating mantra “Just breathe, just breathe…” he repeated for a while.
However, the show was anything but sad, and the contrast between the gravity of the songs and the tone in-between could not have been more obvious. There were even hilarious moments: a guy screaming “yeehaw” triggered an impromptu joke at the Shrine: “This guy has been following us since Texas!” Nick said. At the Orpheum, we were warned that we had three verses to take off our underwear and throw them at Warren who did a remarkable violin solo during the T-Rex cover, “Cosmic Dancer.” And “Carnage” provided the best opportunity to recognize the upper-level crowd in both theaters, since both venues had a balcony. “Balcony Man” jokingly became a participatory call to the cheaper seats, and both times, it was a riot.
The setlist (that I managed to see before the show started at the Shrine) was packed with two encores and a long list of songs: “Albuquerque,” “Watching Alice,” “Are You the One,” “Jubilee Street,”… and if they did not play all the songs listed on paper, it doesn’t mean they were any surprises. Besides the well-loved “Into My Arms,” it was a delight to listen to an old murder ballad, “Henry Lee,” performed at both shows in duet with backing singer Janet Rasmus. At the Shrine, there was also an unexpected guest, as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea showed up for “We No Who U R.” At this moment, many may have thought about the infamous Cave quote dissing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music decades ago, but Flea is a huge Cave fan, and a class act and the love was palpable during and after the show. I really wished they had played “Albuquerque,” and if Flea didn’t come back the second night at the Orpheum, we got “Girl in Amber,” movingly dedicated to Anita Lane, an original member of the Bad Seeds who died last year.
“I wanted to end with this one,” Nick said at the Shrine before performing “Ghosteen Speaks.” But both shows ended with this same song, and I saw a woman standing front row at the Orpheum. I hadn’t looked at her before, but I noticed that she cried during the entire song, while being comforted by a man next to her. Her tears certainly looked more intense than those of a person simply affected by a musical moment, and it was an extremely moving moment, a lump-in-the-throat type of instant, a moment when a very personal pain finds cathartic comfort and solace during a collective experience. These songs were written for a person like her, a person who has lost a child? a husband? A fiancé? “Because in every house someone had died,” tells us Kisa’s tale in the song “Hollywood.” Obviously, we all are this person crying her heart out during “Ghosteen Speaks.”
Setlist at the Shrine auditorium
Spinning Song (Ghosteen)
Bright Horses (Ghosteen)
Night Raid (Ghosteen)
White Elephant (Carnage)
Lavender Fields (Carnage)
Waiting for You (Ghosteen)
I Need You (Skeleton Tree)
Cosmic Dancer (T. Rex cover)
God Is in the House
Hand of God (Carnage)
Shattered Ground (Carnage)
Galleon Ship (Ghosteen)
Balcony Man (Carnage)
We No Who U R (with Flea) (Tour Debut, First Time Played Since 2015)
Into My Arms
Setlist at the Orpheum
Waiting for You
I Need You
Cosmic Dancer (T. Rex cover)
Hand of God
Girl in Amber
Into My Arms
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – May 1973 (Volume 4, Number 12)
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