Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Hammerstein Ballroom - 7/27/14
Better Than: About 90-95 percent of the shows I've seen in my life.
Photo by Tom Oldham courtesy Nasty Little Man
First, a bit of disclosure. There's a certain degree to which you get spoiled living in New York, especially if writing about music factors into your job. You see a lot of concerts, and it all starts to blend together a bit. Much of it's great, and hey, going to three shows a week isn't a bad way to live your life, but naturally it becomes harder for things to stand out in your memory, for them to become challengers for your top 10 shows of all time, or whatever. A little over a month ago, I was covering Bonnaroo and made the unpopular decision of seeing Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds instead of Frank Ocean, or the Flaming Lips, or Skrillex's SuperJam. And I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it was, on some level, life-changing. He's the sort of artist I've long been distantly familiar with, knowing and liking some of his music but always thinking I'd have to set aside some serious time to do a proper deep dive into his career; I walked out of that show feeling like I'd suddenly found an artist that had been under my nose for years, just waiting to become one of the most important artists in my life.
There's just so much less of a chance of that kind of thing happening after a certain amount of years, which makes it all the more overwhelming when it does once more. In the subsequent weeks, I've listened to his albums obsessively; "The Mercy Seat" has received two or three plays per day alone. So: I was excited to see Nick Cave again. And he delivered.
Cave is something of a niche legend, one of the many ways he's a rare breed. Walking out to the rhythm of slow-burn opener "We Real Cool," Cave looked every bit the part, as well. He's one of those guys who just radiates charisma, easily pulling out a laugh or wild cheers for small gestures or bits of banter, but also possessing a certain immortal swagger. As he always does these days, he was wearing a black suit, a dress shirt half-unbuttoned (this time it looked shimmery and silvery), a necklace hanging out from within, and his hair slicked back. He kind of looks like an assassin from Las Vegas. But then there's that swagger, the lithe and serpentine movements mixed with the mad-eyed, possessed ones, and the way he'll wave his arms languidly and drop them down at key moments in songs. In these moments, he has the look of some dark preacherman, or perhaps just a sorcerer. (The 40-something woman near me straight-up convulsing her way through "From Her to Eternity" was a strong argument for the latter.)
Billed as the "Final Area Show," Cave's Hammerstein Ballroom set (as well as the preceding night's Celebrate Brooklyn show at the Prospect Park Bandshell) saw the man still touring last year's excellent and somewhat overlooked in-the-grand-scheme-of-things Push the Sky Away, but he also has a pseudo-documentary about him out called 20,000 Days on Earth. Accordingly, the setlist reflected this juncture, split between Push the Sky Away material and something of a Nick Cave greatest hits. Though there were plenty gaps (he fit just 16 songs into two hours; there were a lot of epics), Cave's current setlist gives you a good bite-sized summary of all the different forms and themes he's explored over the years: from early favorites like "Tupelo" or "The Mercy Seat," to the warped vulgarity spree of "Stagger Lee" (Cave in "his Disney villain mode," as the friend who accompanied me described it), to more vulnerable piano balladry like "God is in the House" or "The Ship Song." Twin standouts from Let Love In, "Do You Love Me?" and "Red Right Hand" received some of the most fervent responses of the night, further underlining that that album itself might be the perfect distillation of everything Cave's been about in his career.