At the Greek Theatre, there was essentially two ways to take in Nick Cave’s sold-out, tour-closing performance with his band The Bad Seeds. There was a small, standing-room-only pit right in front of the stage that Cave got people to fill early in the set, the singer motioning for everyone to push as close to the stage as possible. And there was everywhere else — a vast expanse of seated folks all wishing they were also close enough for Cave to touch them. The people in the pit felt his breath, had their hands guided to his heart, and were often relied on to hold him from the ground. Near the stage, it was the most baroque hardcore show ever conceived. The audience was part of the show. Everything was interactive.
It’s a strange way to experience Cave’s freshest material, from last year’s incredible Skeleton Tree. Released in the wake of his son’s unexpected death, the record rings with words either directly about the experience or ominously prescient. Regardless of which, Cave’s voice is weary and worn down on the album, using his last bit of strength to muster the emotions that these songs require. It’s hardly high energy, but on Thursday night, Cave made these tunes work for his live persona and not the other way around.
He may have started the set on a stool — his band stoic and motionless behind him as he dipped his toes in the water with “Anthrocene”– but by the second song, “Jesus Alone”, he was pacing the stage like a caged animal. Three songs in and it was as if someone had forgotten to lock that cage, and by the time “Higgs Boson Blues” unfolded — stretched to nearly double its album length and modified to incorporate audience participation — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had steered their ship away from the somber and into the kinetic. “Who cares what the future brings?” he asks early in that tune, as if there was so much pain and suffering and heartache and confusion in the world that nihilism is the only sensible response. But this is only one side of a coin. The song ultimately became a cathartic exercise in community, the audience vocalizing the sound of Cave’s own beating heart, everyone for the moment a part of the same living organism.
And it’s the simplest sentiments from Cave’s dense songwriting that leave the lasting effect. Sure, Cave used the encore to invite troves of fans onto the stage with him and even made a ceremonial lap into the audience on the backs of their seats. And his band pulled together for genuine wow moments on tense renditions of “Red Right Hand” and “From Her to Eternity”. But the transcendent came from the mouth of the songwriter. On “I Need You”, he repeats “just breathe” as a plea for maintaining life, balancing the beating of his heart and, in the performance, condensing life down to its two most basic functions. And on “Into My Arms”, the crowd erupted on his third verse proclamation that he “believes in love.” It was a sentiment that the audience needed to hear from Cave — that not all the goodness of life had left him. It was a single phrase distillation of how fans felt to see a hero survive the unimaginable, to stare life’s greatest tragedy in the eye and turn it into art. Cave’s endurance and energy and humor were all still there in concert. He’s a survivor, and that means maybe we can be the same.