Nick Cave Returns To Boston With Carnage In Mind

With a small band co-led by Warren Ellis, the Goth bard sows the seeds of sorrow and redemption in Beantown

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave return to Boston (Image: sub-Roza)

“Thank you for risking your lives to see me tonight,” said Nick Cave, near the close of his two-hour, twenty-minute show at Boston’s Wang Theatre on March 22nd. 

It brought a grim smile. Were we doing that? Maybe, sorta. Masks were off and no vaccination proof was needed per government regulations – we were at a level of concertizing approaching normal – but Covid didn’t just vanish and, in fact, reports of yet another new variant, even faster-spreading, had just surfaced.

It wasn’t the first time thoughts of death surfaced during the evening. But those were voiced by the singer in song; they affected the characters he created and the oft-dramatic, perilous situations, emotional or physical, he placed them in.

Let me backtrack, slightly. Thirty years ago, I was interviewing Cave and he was discussing his musical obsessions — his passion for morbid, romantic blues-rock, his themes of love, betrayal, and bloodshed. His rather visceral summary: “I think there is a certain perversity in my music in that I continue, you know, to eat at the same ball of vomit year after year.”

Six years after that, we were at it again, him on the phone from London and me in Boston, and I asked if the metaphor still applied:  “I find new ways of addressing things, becoming more clear about what I’ve been doing all these years. Personally, I think I’ve been on the same kind of artistic endeavor I’ve always been on and that is to write really great love songs. And that is the ball of vomit I’m talking about.” 

I didn’t speak to Cave this year, but I don’t think he’d alter his take much. Although, well, there’s more death.

Nick Cave crooning at the Wang (Image: sub-Roza)

Here we were in 2022: Nick Cave – a tall, lanky man dressed as always in black jacket and trousers and a white shirt – with his main Bad Seeds collaborator, violinist-synthist Warren Ellis, wailing and chipping away at that aforementioned ball Cave had been chewing over the years. They were on the road, not as the Bad Seeds exactly, but as the two men on the marquee plus multi-instrumentalist Luis Almau (percussion / bass guitar) and one male backing singer, T Jae Cole, and two women, Janet Rasmus and Wendi Rose.

It was a sight and sound to behold. I’m wary of superlatives, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been held as spellbound by a concert. Roxy Music is in that mix, as is Spiritualized and Leonard Cohen. But right now, Cave and Ellis have risen to the top of that glorious heap. This kind of emotional, connective power is why we do what we do – go to concerts, hoping for the best – and why they (the artists) do what they do.

In 2019, the Bad Seeds were supposed to tour behind Ghosteen – a live presentation of an album preoccupied with grief and mourning, clearly inspired by the death of Cave’s teen son Arthur in 2015. Arthur fell from a cliff after taking LSD. But COVID-19 did what it did and the tour was scrapped. 

Nick Cave and Band at the Wang Theatre (Image: sub-Roza)

Cave and Ellis then released the eight-song album, Carnage. in February. At the Wang Theater, they featured six from that album, seven from Ghosteen, nine from the Bad Seeds catalog and one cover, T.Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer.” No, I didn’t think I’d ever hear Cave cover the guy who gave us “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” and “Metal Guru,” but this choice fit the mix perfectly. Early in the song, the baritone-voiced Cave sang “I danced myself right out of the womb” and near the end, “I danced myself into a tomb.” Bolan died in a car crash in September, 1977.

Starting with “Spinning Song” – nominally about Elvis and Priscilla – and closing with a pair of heartbreakers, “Into My Arms” and “Ghosteen Speaks,” Cave and company played a carefully constructed set. (It doesn’t seem to vary city to city.) They’ll bring you down, bring you up, spin you around so you’re not sure which direction you’re in – maybe that’s the best vibe of all. As with some of Cohen’s best, there’s both brutality and beauty in the mix, sometimes within a song, certainly over the course of the set. And for all the hovering darkness, glimpses of love and light, in “Ghosteen” Cave sings about “a world so beautiful I keep it in my heart.”

Whether sitting at the grand piano or stalking the stage – he juggled the two positions – Cave projected all-consuming intensity. For instance, he sang, fiercely, “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face if I see you coming” in “White Elephant.” The long gray-bearded and wild-haired Ellis, who primarily was at the synth with some violin, was mostly seated, but animated – vicious slashes of the bow, both legs rising up in unison, the musician arching backwards.  

In “Hand of God,” with a mutant disco metronome beat thumping away, Ellis waved handbells and stomped the stage. It was also a quasi-gospel song. The backup singers descended from their usual perch (stage right, back) and came down to the front forming a semi-circle, which Cave entered and kneeled at. Bathed in devilish red light, Cave sang of the “hand of God coming down from the sky” over and over and at the end, “Let the river cast its spell.” I could be wrong, but I’m thinking this God here was the Old Testament kind, a rather vicious and vindictive bastard. A dark and violent whirlwind, a scream … and at the end, with the audience joining him, it was a whisper-along, not a singalong. We were all whispering “hand of God.” You exhaled big time when it was over.

Nick Cave rallies the crowd (Image: sub-Roza)

“Lavender Fields” and “Hollywood” both conjured up the images of dead children and cruel fate. “Leviathan” was a masterful slow tease, the dynamics all soft and hushed, then moving to a growl and a roar, jerking to a halt with Cave’s “Stop!” at the end.

When songs concluded, Cave would often break character – or, more accurately, leave the character behind – and become amiable, doling out dollops of warm and humorous chat. Not rah-rah stuff, mind you. But personable. After “Waiting for You,” he said his son (he has three surviving sons) was thinking of moving to Boston to live, inquiring whether “it’s a good place to live – is it, like, fun?” The audience gave him a mixed response, meh, which was perfect – yeah, it’s sorta good but – and Cave had a laugh. (How many shows have you seen where the singer name-checks the city he’s in and the crowd goes all Pavlov-doggy with its whoops and cries?)

Cave, at 64, is as suave as Bryan Ferry and as insectoid as Ric Ocasek. He may be the most-narrative based singer-songwriter since Lou Reed. Not everything’s a story, mind you, and you may feel the extreme pull of certain bits of the song without latching onto that narrative, but they’re there if you want them.

I know some people miss the harshness of Grinderman or, going back, the brutal and bleak cacophony of the late-’70s/early- ‘80s Birthday Party. I won’t argue that. A friend on Facebook, William Jordan, was at the show and found it, like, me spellbinding and transformative, posting “but truth be told I really miss his rocking persona and band. I don’t see him returning to his rambunctious younger and mid-life days anytime soon (which includes the Grinderman LPs that I love). I was with [a friend] Patrick Rafferty who said ‘He really has changed since he lost his son’ and truer words have never been spoken.”

The music moved at slow or medium tempos – nothing as frenetic as “The Mercy Seat” here – and Ellis often counted them off with the slowest, most deliberate “1-2-3-4” I’ve ever heard. That pace can be a bit unnerving, but there were so many counterpunches within the songs – a soaring synth line or violin squall from Ellis, a solar plexus-shaking bass run from Hostile, staccato piano bursts from Cave, the gospel trio soaring into the stratosphere – that they maintained a vice-like grip on your attention. Where would this journey go next?

Nick Cave at the piano (Image: sub-Roza)

Cave dug into his love of murder ballads with “Henry Lee,” a duet with Rose, where poor Henry is introduced as “Stagger Lee’s evil assistant.” Indeed, Rose – singing the part voiced initially by Cave’s ex PJ Harvey in 1996 – finds herself leaning back against the fence for a kiss, whereupon she turns the tables by repeatedly stabbing him with a pen knife. The wind howls and “a little bird let down on Henry Lee.” 

Everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel and there’s no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools,” Cave sang in “Bright Horses” and though it wasn’t written about Vladimir Putin, my thoughts went right there. The song boasts the familiar blues trope of train imagery, with his baby coming back to him on the 5:30 train. That’s the glint of optimism, but is she really coming back or is that just wishful thinking?

My theory on Cave’s music – which I’ve held for a few decades and certainly wouldn’t abandon now– is that as he spins bluesy murder ballads, dark story-songs and spiritual love songs, he relishes taking people down into deep dark waters and then, sometimes, lifting them out (or maybe not). 

I threw that at Cave back in the ‘90s when we spoke. 

“Well,” he said, with a slight laugh, “at least getting them down there. Leaving them there, I don’t know. I think America seems to have this arm-wrestle between what is dark and what is not. And I’ve never seen music in those terms. I think that I’m dealing with issues, mostly, of love. And, to me there’s nothing more positive than that.

“I do have a love of violent literature” – he’ written some himself, dive into The Death of Bunny Munro if you’re looking for a real laugh riot (not) – “and I do get a kick out of writing violent lyrics as well. I guess when those two things get together, love and violence, it makes for some nasty songwriting. But I never see that as being gloomy or depressing. I see it as quite lively. I think that songs that bang on about what a happy lot this human race is and everything is full of joy – that’s an alternate world. I don’t mean to be depressing about these things, but I find songs like that quite strange.” 

Nick Cave smiles (Image: sub-Roza)

The final image in my head is Cave as quasi-faith healer, during “Ghosteen Speaks.” He certainly wasn’t representing any sort of religion, mind you, and he was singing from the point of view of a dead child, but as he sang “I am beside you … I am within you” he cast this sad-yet-spiritually-uplifting spell about the room. As he reached out, gently, to touch the outstretched hands from the front rows, there was that feeling that he’d brought us through some dark times to a better place.

Maybe that better place is illusory, maybe not. But it was pure catharsis.

 

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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