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CONCERT REVIEW: Chicago Theater, Chicago [21/06/2003] by Tim Brechlin Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' twelfth studio album, Nocturama, was greeted by the most mixed of responses. Music critics everywhere raved about the Nick Cave-lite sound of the album, while longtime fans derided it as sounding like leftovers from the Seeds' previous album, No More Shall We Part. Spurred in part by the negative fan reaction to the album, Cave backtracked on his earlier statement that the band would not tour in 2003 and announced a short set of dates, with a few appearances in Western Europe and seven North American performances.

It seemed that Cave couldn't win, though. North American fans then complained about the brevity of the tour, wondering why two dates were dedicated to San Francisco and one in Los Angeles with another two in New York City, while other major cities, such as Atlanta and Dallas, were abandoned. Compounding the distress was the sudden announcement of the departure of longtime guitarist and vocalist Blixa Bargeld, who claimed he wanted to focus more on the growth of his own band, German punk legends Einsturzende Neubauten. Many fans speculated, however, that Bargeld strongly disagreed with Cave's new musical direction (the one witnessed on the Seeds' last three albums, the aforementioned two and 1998's The Boatman's Call), and gave themselves another source of displeasure. Critics of the band began to assert that the Bad Seeds were finished, that the tour should be canceled and the group should retire. But Cave was determined to show that he hadn't lost his edge, the edge th! at made him into the premier singer/songwriter of his day as well as one of the most powerful vocalists ever to grasp a microphone.

And so the 2003 Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds "tour" began with a strong performance in Amsterdam, then moving to three sold-out shows at the London Hammersmith Apollo. Attendees began to admit that perhaps they had underestimated the resolve of Cave, who was showing a newfound drive and passion during the shows, something that was lacking during the 2002 No More Shall We Part tour. Cave then crossed the pond and reeled off three solid shows in California. And then the day of June 21, 2003 arrived, when the seemingly-reborn Bad Seeds came to the Chicago Theatre.

After a lackluster first support act of Shannon Wright, two twentysomething women, one on drums and the other on an electric guitar, wailing away on their instruments and shrieking like banshees for half an hour, and then a short fifteen-minute accoustic set by Chris Bailey of Australian punk group The Saints, the Chicago Theatre was silent in anticipation, anticipation that was so palpable it could have been sliced with a dinner knife. Despite the myriad annoyances of late arrivals, ushers who looked like they hated their jobs with a passion, and certain attendees who felt a need to get up every ten minutes for another cup of beer, nothing could change the fact that the crowd knew that a legend was about to step on stage.

The Bad Seeds know how to work a crowd.

The house lights dimmed, and the crowd began to cheer, especially when a man in a black T-shirt took the stage...but then died down after he was seen to be just a stage technician fixing a microphone stand.

The crowd roared again when a figure who rather closely resembled manic drummer Jim Sclavunos stepped on stage...but then revealed himself to be Paul Baron as he stepped up to the center microphone.

"Ladies and gentlemen...boys and girls...children of all ages. If you're anything like me, and I know I am, this is the event you've been waiting for all year...or perhaps...all your life.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds."

And the crowd erupted as the eclectic band of musicians took the stage - longtime Cave stalwart Mick Harvey led the charge, marching from the backstage all the way over to the far left and donning the strap of his electric guitar like an old glove, while drummers Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler went to the back of the stage, Conway Savage manned his keyboard, Martyn Casey began strumming his bass, Bargeld replacement Jim Johnston nervously assumed Blixa's old position, in both musical (guitarist) and performance (to Cave's left), eccentric and possibly insane violinist Warren Ellis grasped his violin with his almost impossibly long arms and crouched down, back turned to the audience...

And the new Man in Black, with all due respect to Johnny Cash, took the stage to a thunderous standing ovation, stormed up to his microphone with fervor, threw his cigarette to the stage floor, and said, "Thank you. I'm Nick Cave." A fan in the front of the pit (which, oddly enough, was not a pit, instead being directly level with the main floor) screamed for Bargeld. A sad look crossed Cave's steely face as he said, "Blixa's gone. Blixa left." Cave then waved to the ceiling, perhaps a silent goodbye to his longtime partner.

Cave then approached his Yamaha piano, lit another cigarette, and sat down. He grinned at the crowd for a few moments, eliciting another cheer from his fans, and then began playing the opening strains of "Wonderful Life", the opening track from Nocturama. A small cry of approval was heard from the audience, perhaps out of affection for the song, perhaps out of deference; whatever it was, we will never know. The song, however, which exists as a quiet, moody piece on the album, was transformed into a driving, almost angry love song through Cave's furious singing and the energetic music from the assorted Seeds, all of whom were grinning wildly (aside from violinist Ellis, who, as usual, had his back to the crowd). As he sang the final words of the song and the stage lights faded to black, the crowd erupted -- Nick Cave was here, and he was here to leave his mark.

As he stood up from the piano, a female fan in the front area of the floor shrieked, "I LOVE YOU, NICK!" Cave, ever the showman, pumped his fist and mouthed, "Yes!" He then reached for his microphone and said, "Well, you know, I love you too." He paused, briefly, and followed, "Maybe not as much as you love me, but that's just how it goes," eliciting a laugh from the crowd.

The lights on the stage went red and Martyn Casey began playing a furious five-note bass melody that everyone in the crowd knew. When Thomas Wydler rang the bell, the crowd erupted in the most raucous cheer of the night. "Red Right Hand" was here.

Cave's energetic movements and soulful, impassioned wails combined with the madness coming forth from the Bad Seeds' instruments, in particular the guitars of Harvey and Johnston and the drums of Sclavunos, to form a song composed of madness, anger, and fury. The sound was almost terrifying, particularly so when the bell tolled at the end of every verse. When Cave's final line, "You're one microscopic cog in His catastrophic plan, designed and directed by His red right hand," emerged from his mouth, the crowd went into a frenzy of applause. There was no doubt in the mind of any member of the audience by that point. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were in top form.

The band continued its stellar performance, running through a lively rendition of "West Country Girl" (off The Boatman's Call), then the slow "Hallelujah" (from No More Shall We Part) during which Cave grew frustrated at the audience for its failure to respond to his plea for singing during the refrain of the song. Warren Ellis was in true lunatic mode during the latter song and indeed during the whole show, playing his violin with all the energy of a wild hyena, while doing contortions that even a circus performer would cringe upon viewing.

The Bad Seeds then launched a fairly mundane performance of "Sad Waters", but then exploded once again in a simply remarkable rendition of the classic "Tupelo". Mick Harvey showcased his talents during "Tupelo", performing rapid-fire guitar solos and lending his trademark chant of the title during the refrain.

At that point, Cave announced to the crowd, "And now, Chris Bailey." Bailey, who had performed before the show, stormed the stage and joined with Cave in a passionate performance of the finest track from Nocturama, "Bring It On". The two singers wailed until it seemed like they could wail no more, and then they wailed again. Again, the musicians seemed to desire the generation of so much sound that the audience members' eardrums burst.

After the classic "Bring It On", the Seeds flew straight into a rollicking version of their longtime standby, "Do You Love Me?". The crowd began screeching along with the seemingly-tireless Cave on the song's crazed refrain, and the energy level of the show was still through the roof.

The performance quieted down for the next two songs, "Still in Love" and "Loom of the Land", the latter having been stripped down from its string-heavy album version (from Henry's Dreaminto a Cave-only piece, consisting of him and his piano. However, after "Loom" was completed, the show returned to high-octane mode and never came back.

First up was the classic "The Mercy Seat", the song that Cave said he performs at every live show he does, simply because "I think we never stop improving on it." Unfortunately, this time, there wasn't much improvement at all, if any, from previous live performances of the song (the pinnacle being the recording heard on 1993's Live Seeds album). While the song was full of the insane pleas of the death row convict preparing to go to the electric chair (the titular Mercy Seat), something was missing. Perhaps it was the minor but still significant change of Cave performing on the piano for the song, when he normally uses "The Mercy Seat" as an opportunity to fly around the stage even more than usual. The performers, too, seemed to think that something wasn't flying right, as the song ended about a minute and a half earlier than normal. A few brief words from Cave followed, and he then blessed the crowd with a remarkable and soulful rendition of "Christina the Astonishing",! which had been essentially absent from Cave tours since the initial Henry's Dream round in 1993.

And then, if it was even possible, Cave got even more crazed.

Conway Savage began pounding the familiar melody on his keyboard, and Cave shrieked those eight fateful words: "I want to tell you about a girl." Those words launched the Bad Seeds' career on their 1984 album, also titled From Her to Eternity, out of the ashes of The Birthday Party. "Eternity", while still its old unintelligible and manic self, must be respected simply for its irrepressible energy and enthusiasm. Cave's shrieks of affection for the titular woman were bolstered by a total group effort from the Bad Seeds, who played the song as if they would never perform again.

Cave then flew straight into the frenetic "Wild World", one of the most powerful that his first band, The Birthday Party, released, and after that mad, insane song was finished, he yelled to the crowd, "Thank you! Goodnight!"

The Seeds left the stage, with Mick Harvey making exaggerated goodbye motions to the crowd. As mentioned above, they know how to work a crowd. The audience cheered and hollered for a full seven minutes until the Bad Seeds finally returned to their posts for their first encore.

Cave began wandering around to the other musicians, seemingly mumbling, "What am I doing? What am I doing?" An audience member shouted for "Babe, I'm on Fire", a classic track from Nocturama, prompting Cave to show a pained face and quip, "Just go home and listen to the album." The Bad Seeds then fired off a high-energy rendition of "Nobody's Baby Now", which was filled with just a bit more guitar and percussion than in its album incarnation. The crowd continued shrieking, with a number of cries for "Henry Lee", when, suddenly and without any warning whatsoever, the opening guitar strains of "Deanna" filled the auditorium and were greeted by frenzied cheers from the fans. "Deanna", a song that sounds like the result of a car accident involving the Beatles and the Bad Seeds, finished off the first encore with a bang. Cave again shouted, "Good night!" to the fans, who knew that the legend wasn't finished.

A few short minutes later, the Bad Seeds returned once more to the stage. Cave sat at his piano, lit up another of his apparently ubiquitous cigarettes, and then said, "The band and I would really appreciate it if you could sing along with us on this one." Apparently, a fan in the front row shouted in protest, leading Cave to joke, "If I can sing it, anyone can." He then launched the beautifully hilarious "God is in the House", the performance of which was remarkable for both the audience's complete failure to sing and Cave's repeated attempts to begin the final verse of the song, which were stymied by his inability to remember the lyrics. He started twice and stopped quickly, grinned, and held his face in his hands in a sort of half-terror. Finally, he remembered the words (after another puff on his cigarette) and finished off the song with quiet beauty.

The crowd, which had been on its feet for the entire show, didn't want him to go. Cave then announced, "Alright, we're doing this one because you asked for it." He summoned Paul Baron to the stage with cue cards, and began the fourteen-minute outburst of rage, madness, and insanity known as "Babe, I'm on Fire". Though Baron dutifully held the cue cards, Cave ultimately failed to utilize them, and ultimately gave the crowd a few memorable misfires throughout the song's energy-filled verses, some of which seemed to elicit dangerous amounts of laughter from the other Bad Seeds, Mick Harvey in particular.

After the crazed and fiery song ended, Cave finally smiled, and said, this time with finality, "Thank you, thank you so much." Lending credence to the rumors that the Bad Seeds will not tour again in the immediate future, if ever, he added, "See you...sometime."

And just as quickly as they had arrived, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds exited the Chicago Theatre, after having given their fans a truly powerful set of songs. Some audience members were in tears due to the emotion of the show; others, like myself, had an irrepressible grin on their faces; and still others sat silent in awe of what had just been witnessed. But, as Cave sang in "God is in the House", let the word get out from the north down to the south that the Bad Seeds are far from finished, and have emerged from the misfire of Nocturama as an even more powerful musical force. There's still some "Bad" left in these Bad Seeds.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

 

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