Concert review: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Chicago Theatre

Nick Cave

Nick Cave performs in Los Angeles in February. (Getty Images / April 2, 2013)

“Look at me, I’m transforming,” Nick Cave sang Monday at the Chicago Theatre, his scarecrow arms swinging from the elbows. “I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying. Look at me now.”

With the big, black wave of sound whipped up by his bandmates, the Bad Seeds, rising behind him, Cave played the role of a man drowning in his own defeated expectations. After the slow incantation of “We No Who U R” opened the concert like a lone lightbulb trying to pierce the gloom, Cave and his graying band of pirates turned “Jubilee Street” into a slow-build riot of discontent and desperation.

No one paints a picture quite as vividly with lyrics as does Cave, and part of his appeal is built on pure storytelling. In his black suit, jet-black hair and white shirt, he was a dapper gentleman preacher who raved as if the Old Testament were also a scandal sheet, rife with betrayal, temptation, blood and lust. “People,” Cave declared, “they ain’t no good,” and he spent a good portion of the nearly two-hour performance counting the ways.

That’s not a complete picture of the world according to Cave, though. There may be no room for sentimentality or cheap bromides, but his characters crave grace and redemption, even if they themselves are beyond it. In past Chicago shows, Cave has roamed the stage like a lion tamer, whipping his extra-long microphone cord as if to keep all intruders at bay. But on this night, he was wading into the audience, wrapping his arm around shoulders and touching hands like a black-hearted healer.

The impetus might have been the latest batch of Bad Seeds songs from their recent album, “Push the Sky Away.” Given that the songs are more slow-developing, sensual and intimate with minimal chord changes, the concert could’ve bogged down in monotone darkness. But Cave’s accomplices blew out the dynamics, restraint giving way to mayhem and back again.   

The extravagantly bearded Warren Ellis, the Rasputin of multi-instrumentalists, often set the tone with an absolute minimum of fuss on violin, tenor guitar, flute, keyboards or electric mandolin. He led a band that played with ragged finesse, tearing at the fabric of songs even in the quietest moments. It gave Cave’s music – even songs he has performed countless times before, like “From Her to Eternity” or “Love Letter” – an unsettled quality, as if the band were relearning them on the spot. During an interlude at the piano, Cave and bassist Martyn P. Casey had trouble agreeing on the key for one old favorite, quickly abandoned it and moved on to another. It gave the whole segment of piano-bass-drums ballads a casual, after-hours feel that felt refreshingly spontaneous.

Even a Cave classic like “The Mercy Seat,” immortalized by Johnny Cash and as close to a “standard” as the singer has, hardly felt rote. As the narrator confronted the mortality rushing to engulf him, strapped to an electric chair, the Bad Seeds played with a fury that sent Cave over an invisible ledge, and turned the final word, “lie,” into a scream.

In that moment he was, as promised, transforming, vibrating, glowing, flying.

greg@gregkot.com

Nick Cave set list Monday at the Chicago Theatre:
1 We No Who U R
2 Jubilee Street
3 Wide Lovely Eyes
4 Higgs Boson Blues
5 From Her to Eternity
6 Red Right Hand
7 Deanna
8 Jack the Ripper
9 Your Funeral, My Trial
10 People Ain’t No Good
11 Love Letter
12 Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
13 The Weeping Song
14 The Mercy Seat
15 Stagger Lee

Encore:
16 Tupelo
17 Push the Sky Away

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