We all know that I writhe and drool every time I mention Nick Cave - and this article is going to be no exception. In fact, there may be more writhing and drooling than usual, because I’m still basking in the afterglow of seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performing live at the Hammersmith Apollo in London last night.
This is the second time I’ve seen Nick Cave in concert. The first time was just two years ago at Brixton Academy. By the time that first concert rolled around, I had nurtured my Nick Cave obsession for so long that to finally see him in concert was like a religious experience. It was the culmination of years of playing From Her to Eternity at top volume and imagining what it would be like to hear those songs played live, surrounded by a rapt audience of fellow Cave-ites. It was a loud, glorious epiphany.
Despite years of yearning to see Nick Cave live, I had approached that first concert with some trepidation. I was (and am) more enamored of the wild and woolly songs of the earlier Bad Seeds’ stuff than I am with the low-key tunes from more recent albums like The Boatman’s Call , so I was prepared to be a bit disappointed by a toned-down, restrained, sitting-at-the-piano sort of concert. After all, Nick Cave’s no spring chicken; he’s grown older and mellowed out, and I figured I couldn’t really expect the man to still be shrieking and flapping around the stage like he used to do in the whacked-out days of his youth.
But oh, how I underestimated our Mr. Cave. From the moment he strode on stage, all lanky and menacing in his dark suit, and the slinky bass groove of “Do You Love Me” began to rumble out through the concert hall, I was hooked so completely that it would have taken a nuclear blast to tear my attention away from the concert. From start to finish, I was riveted by the spectacle before me: Nick Cave stalking the stage restlessly, alternately growling and crooning and snarling into the microphone, looming over his audience of cheering acolytes and preaching his apocalyptic gospel, with the Bad Seeds - quite simply the most drop-dead cool band on the face of the earth - thundering along inexorably behind him.
There are some bands that just have to be seen live to be really experienced, and the Bad Seeds fronted by Saint Nick are one of those bands. As powerful and brilliant as albums like Let Love In are, the songs on those albums don’t really come to life until they are blasted at you in concert with an intensity that practically sears the air around you and flattens you against the back of your seat. It’s an entirely visceral experience; you feel the percussion rattling your sternum and the bass rumbling in your stomach, you feel your eardrums throb and your muscles twitching and tugging this way and that in time with the music. It’s pure rock bliss.
In light of this, you might think that I could barely contain myself in anticipation of the concert I went to last night. In fact, though, I hardly thought about the concert until I actually got to London yesterday afternoon. My eagerness to see a great rock concert was tempered by certain misgivings that I simply couldn’t shake.
For one thing, I knew that I could never recapture the experience of that first concert and the thrill of excitement I had when I heard some of my favorite songs of all time being played live right in front of me for the first time. As great as any subsequent concerts might be, they wouldn’t be the first concert.
A more serious concern was that when I first heard Nocturama , the most recent Nick Cave album, I… well, I absolutely hated it. Really. Hated. Whereas Murder Ballads seemed to be an exercise in tremendously ironic and quite hilarious self-parody, Nocturama sounded like a mockery of a Nick Cave album completely devoid of all humor and irony. The more I’ve listened to it, the less I’ve hated it - in fact, I quite like some of the songs - but I still think it pales drastically in comparison with everything else Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have ever done. So I was half-dreading having to sit through a boring concert of mediocre songs: a Nick Cave Light sort of evening.
Finally, and most importantly, I was unsure about this concert because my favorite Bad Seed - founding member Blixa Bargeld , he of the jangling slide guitar and the utterly inhuman banshee wail - would not be there. Blixa Bargeld left the Bad Seeds after recording Nocturama, much to my dismay. I have a real soft spot for Blixa, not least because he’s the frontman of Einstuerzende Neubauten , a band I was into long before I was really into Nick Cave. His sinister guitar and wild shriek seemed integral to the Bad Seeds’ sound, and there was an obvious rapport between Blixa and Mr. Cave on stage that I found quite electrifying. The thought of a Nick Cave concert without Blixa was almost like the thought of a Nick Cave concert without Nick Cave.
With all this mind, I went along to the Hammersmith Apollo, settled into my seat (which was much closer to the stage this time around than last time) and prepared myself for whatever was to come.
Well, I certainly did enjoy myself, even if this concert wasn’t quite the transcendental experience that the last one was. One odd issue was that the concert was being filmed for a forthcoming DVD, so there were people with video cameras in the wings, and there was a mobile camera on a long boom moving over the stage throughout the gig. This was intriguing, but more than once I found myself watching the moving camera and wondering what images they were capturing for the DVD rather than paying attention to Mr. Cave and his Bad Seeds.
This led to a strange sense of detachment from the concert, which was exacerbated by the fact that Nick Cave and the band members themselves seemed to be oddly detached from the gig. There were forgotten lyrics, songs apparently in the wrong key, and an overall lack of subtlety and unity in playing. Don’t get me wrong: the Bad Seeds are fabulous musicians, and they rock as much as a band can possible rock - I was nearly blasted out of my seat by “Red Right Hand” - but truly lovely ballads like “The Ship Song” were somewhat shambolic in a way that detracted from their power rather than added to it.
And, of course, Blixa wasn’t there. I thought I was just being silly by missing him so much, but a post-concert analysis confirmed that I was not alone in feeling that there was just something missing. There was an absence on the stage where he should have stood, and there was an absence in the music that he should have filled. I’m sure the Bad Seeds are still coming to terms (musically speaking) with the departure of the guitarist who had been with them for the past twenty years, so I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on them. Nonetheless, last night I was ready to start a Bring Back Blixa campaign. The Bad Seeds are just slightly less bad without him.
But I’m being overly critical here. The gig may only have been great - not Great - but by the standards of any other band, it was still utterly fabulous. Other bands can only dream of matching the intensity of the Bad Seeds. Other performers can only look on in awe as Nick Cave prowls around like some raving, captivating madman. When everything came together last night, like during the scathing version of “West Country Girl”, or the relentless “Mercy Seat”, or the blistering “Tupelo”, then I could have sworn I had died and gone to Heaven (or perhaps to some deliciously enticing Hell). “Do You Love Me” was played at the end of the concert, by which time I had managed to shake off my doubts and detachment and just go with the fiendish flow. I was rapturous as I watched Nick Cave ply his trade on stage. He was doubled over with the intensity of his performance, writhing and sweating and howling into the microphone with maniacal insistence - “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?”
Oh yes, Mr. Cave. I most certainly do.