Nick Cave Takes New York: Concert Review

Matthew Allen
The musician, author and screenwriter showed both his theatrical and his introspective sides in fan-pleasing concerts.

NEW YORK — "Why is Nick Cave trending now?," snorted an East Village barfly to his drinkmaker, both men wondering at the sudden bubbling-up of interest in an artist whose work they'd followed for decades and had lately begun to lose faith in. Was it not perverse that 2013's Push the Sky Away, the first Bad Seeds album made without his crucial collaborator Mick Harvey, should be among Cave's most successful records?

Had either man attended the trio of shows here that drew both Johnny-come-latelies and erstwhile fans over the last week or so, they might have softened their view. Even those who don't think Cave is currently making the best music of his career must concede his committed greatness as a performer, demonstrated in front of huge crowds at Prospect Park and the Hammerstein Ballroom, and appreciate the relaxed candor he showed in a small event held Monday to promote the upcoming film 20,000 Days on Earth. This is not a man who is ready to rest on laurels or stick with a persona that no longer reflects his life.

The night after his Brooklyn outdoor gig, Cave arrived at the Hammerstein for a show whose set list resembled those of New York appearances in 2013, but whose spirit was more consistently fiery. Banning photographers from their usual front-of-stage perch, he made ample use of that space himself, stepping out beyond the lip of the stage on a makeshift ledge. Leaning over the crowd like a faith healer working a tent revival, he supported himself with scores of listeners' hands — not crowd-surfing, but cantilevering above as they formed a human buttress against his thighs, crotch, and lower torso. When he whispered "Can you feel my heart beat?," from Push the Sky's standout track, "Higgs Boson Blues," it was certain that a fan with her hand on his femoral artery could reply with a literal instead of a figurative "yes." The pose worked especially well for "Red Right Hand," the twenty year-old song from Let Love In that could well be seen as the moment where the Nick Cave of the '80s, unhinged and frightening even in ballad mode, became the more controlled artist of the '90s and 2000s.

In 20,000 Days on Earth (which opens theatrically September 14), Cave gets laughs from recalling that earlier period, when his previous band The Birthday Party was "billed as the most violent band in the world." Poring through the "Nick Cave Archives" with curators in tow (the space is actually a fictional setting, built by filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard), he looks at photos of an old live gig and observes how bassist Tracy Pew managed to fight off a man who was urinating on the stage without interrupting the song.

There were no urinators at Hammerstein, but in between the more reflective numbers the singer convincingly evoked a barroom from Hell in "Stagger Lee," an obscene updating of the old folk song that for years has served in his concerts, along with "The Mercy Seat," as a vivid reminder of the primordial energies coursing through Cave's art.

The singer revisited "Mercy Seat" eight nights later, offering a mournful rendition midway through a solo-piano concert in the French Institute Alliance Francaise's small recital hall. Following a screening of 20,000 Days, a ficto-factual window into Cave's life and methods that proved a refreshing change from earlier, more straightforward performance films, Cave spent an hour answering questions from fans and playing some of his quieter songs.

The audience's questions didn't do much prodding about the film's unusual techniques. As is often the case in such events, fans spent more time proclaiming their personal affinities for his work than unearthing the artist's secrets — though one question about Bad Seeds myths did get Cave to recall his first New York show, which had to be cancelled when he was busted for heroin and spent three nights in jail. Inquiring minds got the fitness tips they were looking for: Cave doesn't exercise, and claims "I just go on tour and have a mild heart attack for the first four or five gigs — then you kind of get fit."

In between the moving ballads "Into My Arms" (one of the saddest optimistic love songs ever written) and "Love Letter," though, Cave said something that might've interested those malcontents in the East Village bar. While more than a few old-timers lament the departure of Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld (who makes a brief, not-very-revealing appearance in the film) and the ascendancy of Warren Ellis, the Dirty Three violinist who is now his right-hand man, Cave himself is convinced things are moving in the right direction. When asked that inevitable, near-unanswerable question — "What artist has influenced you the most?" — Cave declined to offer any of the obvious answers (Elvis, Cash, Faulkner) and settled for citing the "massive impact" of Ellis, whose loop-driven arrangements have pushed Cave's songs beyond the "piano-led, chordal stuff" that once dominated them.

Ellis may have fixed something that wasn't broken. But to judge from the performances of the last few days, Cave has plenty left to express in whatever musical mode he chooses.

Set Lists:

At Hammerstein Ballroom

We Real Cool
Jubilee Street
Red Right Hand
From Her to Eternity
Sad Waters
God Is in the House
Do You Love Me?
Higgs Boson Blues
The Mercy Seat
Stagger Lee
Push the Sky Away


Papa Won't Leave You, Henry

Encore 2:

The Ship Song
People Ain't No Good

Solo at Florence Gould Hall:

Sad Waters
Into My Arms
The Mercy Seat
Watching Alice
The Ship Song
God Is in the House
And No More Shall We Part
Love Letter