Pop concerts often feel like religious services, whether they’re solemnly reverential or ecstatically spectacular.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ astonishing show at the sold-out Electric Factory on Monday frequently fell into the funereal category. With good reason: Over a nearly 40 year career, the Australian rock titan’s post-punk songs have always obsessed over death as they’ve staged a Biblical battle between good and evil.
And then in 2015, Cave suffered an unspeakable tragedy. Arthur, one of his twin teenage sons with wife Susie Bick, died after falling off a cliff near the family’s home on the south coast of England. The Skeleton Tree, Cave’s stark, somber 2016 album was finished in the wake of the 15 year old’s death, and its songs of singular beauty convey profound sorrow.
So Cave came to the Factory to mourn, and his fans did so along with him. Early on, Cave’s pained face was shown supersized on a video screen behind him during Skeleton’s “Jesus Alone,” as his sonorous vocal rang out: “With my voice, I am calling you.”
All of this, of course, makes it sound like the 2 1/2 hour show must have been one of the must epically depressing evenings of all time. In fact, it was life affirming.
Sure, Cave’s Skeleton songs are inconsolable. “I knew the world would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone,” he sang on “Girl In Amber.” In “Distant Sky,” staged as a duet with a video projection of Danish soprano Else Torp, he simply stated: “They told us our gods would outlive us. But they lied.”
But Cave – a Renaissance man who is also a novelist, screenwriter and film scorer – is a fabulous, wholly committed performer who couldn’t put on a show that wasn’t mesmerizing to watch if he tried. With the aid of the masterful, rambunctious Bad Seeds – featuring the great Aussie noisemaking multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis – the set reached as far back as “From Her To Eternity” from the band’s 1984 debut.
The show had its fair share of quiet moments with the bandleader at the piano, including “Into My Arms,” the song he sang at INXS leader Michael Hutchence’s funeral in 1997, and “Nobody’s Baby Now,” played by request for one of a group of fans at the front whom Cave realized are following him on tour.
Along with those gorgeous ruminations, came many a righteous wail. There was the stomping, condemned man’s cry “The Mercy Seat,” and the playful, Miley Cyrus-mentioning metaphysical “Higgs Boson Blues.” And Cave’s explosive retelling of the “Stagger Lee” original gangsta legend, which leaves the Devil himself dead on the ground.
Amidst the seriousness, it needs be added that the always dapper 59 year old Cave has grown increasingly funny and charming as he’s aged. The Devil in his “Stagger Lee” came armed not only with a pitchfork, but also an iPhone. He suggested that his 1994 song “Red Right Hand” – “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan” – had “finally found it’s subject” in Donald Trump, adding a fresh lyrics about “angry little tweets.”
As Cave stood at the lip of the stage, resembling a long-limbed marionette seeking communion with his people, he joked he would climb into the balcony if able. “Iggy Pop could do it, and he’s about 25 years older than me.” (Actually, only 11.)
Instead, as a safer alternative, he took a microphone attached to maybe the world’s longest cord and marched to the steps towards the back of the Factory floor. There, for a grand finale, he slow danced with a fan while performing the title track to his 2013 album Push the Sky Away, drawing strength from a lyric about music’s ability to connect at the most human level. “Some people say it’s just rock and roll,” he sang. “Oh, but it gets right down to your soul.”