Why did I go to Detroit to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, rather than attending their concert next week in Chicago? Well, for one thing, I wanted an excuse for a road trip to Detroit. But I also discovered that the tickets for Cave’s June 3 show at Detroit’s Masonic Temple were considerably cheaper than tickets for his June 16 show at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Especially if I wanted to be up close to the stage, which is really the way to experience Cave in concert. I believe that the priciest Chicago tickets were more than $150, whereas similar tickets — for general admission on the main floor — were just $50 in Detroit. So off I went … and the trip was well worth it.
Cave is one of the most riveting live performers you will ever see, and he’s still at the top of his game. The last Cave show I saw — June 20, 2014, at the Milwaukee Theatre — was my favorite concert of that year. In the three years since then, Cave experienced a personal tragedy: his 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from a 60-foot after freaking out on LSD. An almost overpowering sense of grief filled Cave’s achingly beautiful album last year, Skeleton Tree.
Considering what Cave has gone through over the past few years, I wondered if his live shows might be a more somber affair. As it turns out, the concerts Cave is performing on this tour with his stellar backing band, the Bad Seeds, are similar in many ways to his previous tour. He still spends a great portion of the concert leaning out over the audience, walking among his fans, walking and lying on top of his fans — allowing them to stretch their hands up toward him, and sometimes reaching out to hold their hands. It’s a strange communal act that feels deeply personal. One rarely sees an artist putting himself or herself into the hands of an audience like that.
Now, add the lingering sorrow over the tragedy in Cave’s life — something that was surely on the minds of many audience members — and the musical communion feels even more spiritual.
Cave began the concert sitting in a chair at the front of the stage, singing an exquisitely still “Anthrocene.” But then the intensity built over the next six songs, as he prowled the stage and the audience, singing “Jesus Alone,” “Magneto,” “Higgs Boson Blues,” “From Her to Eternity,” “Tupelo” and “Jubilee Street” — culminating with Cave proclaiming “I’m vibrating — look at me now!” It felt like the whole theater was vibrating.
Cave took down the drama a bit during some quieter songs in the middle of the set, but brought back the high energy again with songs including his concert staples “Red Right Hand” and, in the encore, “Stagger Lee.” The Bad Seeds brought all of the songs to life with an ever-shifting palette of sounds. Warren Ellis raged on violin and guitar, of course, but also manned the grand piano at many key moments. When someone in the audience shouted out their love for Ellis, Cave smiled and remarked, “He’s fucking adorable. I don’t know what it is.” His beard? No, Cave suggested — it’s his heart.
The set list included many songs from Cave’s two most recent albums, plus the core oldies you expect at any Cave show. It was nice to hear one deep cut, “Breathless,” from his 2004 album The Lyre of Orpheus. And just as he did back in 2014, Cave ended his show with the title song from his 2013 masterpiece Push the Sky Away. It’s a meditative tune without a drum beat, which would seem to make it an unusual choice for the climatic closing number, but somehow it works as the most powerful way to end the performance. As he did three years ago, Cave used this song as his moment to walk way out in the crowd with his microphone on a long cord, finally wading his way back through the audience — brushing against me as he went — onto the stage for his final bow.
Anthrocene / Jesus Alone / Magneto / Higgs Boson Blues / From Her to Eternity / Tupelo / Jubilee Street / The Ship Song / Into My Arms / Girl in Amber / I Need You / Red Right Hand / The Mercy Seat / Distant Sky / Skeleton Tree
Encore: The Weeping Song / Breathless / Stagger Lee / Push the Sky Away
(I did not have photo credentials for this concert, so I didn’t have my regular camera gear with me. I managed to get these pictures with my iPhone; pardon the smaller-than-usual size.)