It probably says something that Nick Cave mused about becoming a cult leader two nights in a row at New York’s Beacon Theatre. This tip of the hand happened at the start of “Balcony Man,” the final comedown song on the hallucinatory album Carnage, released last year with his musical partner-in-crime Warren Ellis, that also closed out Nick and Warren’s recent live set (with exception of the numerous encore numbers). On the album, “Balcony Man” sees Nick returning to the balcony where he’s writing these roving songs while watching his wife sleep, a moment of calm and stasis in an album full of frantic forward motion. Live, Nick turned the song into a participatory anthem, veering dangerously towards vaudeville, by asking the audience seated up in the nosebleed seats to scream at the top of their lungs every time he said the word “balcony” or occasionally, “motherfucking balcony.” (If you think that’s cheesy, it’s much more tolerable than the stage invasions that have beset “Stagger Lee” for the past few Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds tours.) Responding to the audience’s boisterous and enthusiastic response, Nick quipped, “I should become a cult leader.”
His only mistake here was talking about becoming a cult leader in the future tense. Attending all four of the New York Nick Cave and Warren Ellis concerts on their North American tour—two at Flatbush’s gloriously ornate Kings Theatre (Des Esseintes would be impressed!) and two at my less favored but still historic Beacon Theatre, I couldn’t help but feel as if I stumbled into a Pentecostal revival or an early, pre-Jonestown Peoples Temple meeting. The evening just needed healings! I’ll be the audience plant that coughs up raw chicken!
Music critics that still publish live reviews like Rolling Stone called the Cave and Ellis concerts “better than church”; likewise, Internet stans also described the shows as “almost religious.” But somewhere between the megachurch climax of “White Elephant,” in which a trio of Black gospel singers—T. Jae Cole, Janet Ramus, and Wendi Rose—Nick, and the audience sang in unison, “A time is coming. A time is nigh. For the kingdom in the sky” and the subsequent organ-laced “Lavender Fields,” in which Wendi Rose, sporting a sparkling dress from Susie Cave’s The Vampire’s Wife, twirled and intoned, “There is a kingdom in the sky,” I realized I was in church. A non-denominational service, sure, but, a religious service nonetheless. I mean, how many times can you call towards the kingdom in the sky before it just becomes church, no matter where you are?
I know. I know what you’re thinking: Emily’s back on her stan bullshit again. And you’re right. But as a connoisseur of trash religiosity and particularly America’s propensity towards extreme devotional behavior, as well as a complete Nick Cave fanatic (as should be obvious), I’m compelled to dip my toe into live reviews. Why? Because I believe Nick, in his collaboration with Ellis (which will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary/concert film And This Much I Know To Be True, directed by Andrew Dominik), has not only reached a career-high, tying together his enduring fixation on American roots music, whether gospel, blues, or murder ballads, and his always shifting creative interest in God, but is exploring some deep-seated desire on the part of his audience to give themselves over to this group transport.
Granted, this moment was a long time coming. Since Nick began to steer The Birthday Party away from Rowland Howard’s deadpan romanticism and into his own preoccupations with swampy Southern Gothic (it’s no mistake he name-checks Flannery O’Connor in the song “Carnage”) and gutter theology with songs like “Big Jesus Trash Can,” which a friend and I implored him to cover at Sunday’s show to a scoff, and the fall from grace, “Mutiny in Heaven,” religion—always with a heavy dose of doubt—has almost always been a part of Nick’s lyrical output. This influence only grew as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds emerged out of The Birthday Party’s disintegration, partially born out of Nick’s dual adoration for Elvis and Johnny Cash, both of whom released gospel albums. This was made most explicit early on by the 1986 cover of the gospel standard “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” on my favorite idol worshiping album Kicking Against the Pricks. Since then, the fascination has evolved over time from the twisted Christian perversity of “Hard On For Love” (“Coming at her like Lazarus from above”) on 1986’s Your Funeral…My Trial to the junk-sick yet sincere piety on The Boatman’s Call’s “There is a Kingdom.” Though continually shifting, pick any song in Nick’s catalog and you’ll likely land on a biblical reference somewhere in the lyrics.
Of all the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds albums, 2019’s Ghosteen may be the most spiritual–and I use that word in the most expansive sense. Entrancing and circular with reoccurring imagery, the album often returns to the scene of Jesus in his mother’s arms, symbolizing perhaps Nick’s twin son Arthur’s tragic death and his awe at his wife’s grief and resilience in the face of unimaginable loss. But, Jesus and Mary are not the only mother and child on the album. Ghosteen’s final track “Hollywood” concludes with a painful recitation, sung out of Nick’s normally baritone range, of the Buddhist tale of Kisa who seeks out Buddha after her baby dies and he teaches her that she is not alone in grief (“Everybody’s losing someone,” Nick sings). In addition to these direct references, Ghosteen also frequently reflects on the power of even irrational belief, as heard in “Bright Horses” (“This world is plain to see. It don’t mean we can’t believe in something…”) and “Ghosteen,” (“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand”).
It’s interesting to think about how Ghosteen would have been interpreted by the full instrumental heft of The Bad Seeds in their sadly canceled 2020 tour (for which I had multiple tickets, including at the Grand Ole Opry, which I’m still sore about two years later). Yet, stripped back for the pandemic, the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis tour featured only six people on stage. Nick either stalked the stage or sat at the piano. Warren did whatever it is he does on the synthesizer (I stood right directly in front of him in the first row on Sunday night and still have no idea. Nick has previously expressed similar bafflement) and occasionally broke out the violin, as well as mischievously counted in the songs, often so slowly as to needle at Nick. Multi-instrumentalist dynamo Luis Almau played just about everything else. And finally, Cole, Ramus, and Rose sang backup and played a few additional instruments. This minimal band only augmented the traveling tent revival feel of the whole thing. If you have an extra two hours, go ahead and watch a full show below:
The shows opened with the first song on Ghosteen, “The Spinning Song,” a near poem supported by Warren’s synthesized atmospherics that begins with an evocation of Elvis crashing onto a stage in Vegas and concludes with Nick’s profession of love to the audience (“And I love you…and I love you…and I love you…”) before soaring into a falsetto “Peace will come,” backed by Cole, Ramus, and Rose. From “The Spinning Song,” the slower tempo of Ghosteen’s “Bright Horses” and “Night Raid” exploded along with the sun on “Carnage” and led into the homicidal, finger-pointing fury of “White Elephant” and its aforementioned fervent chorus. Most of the set consisted of songs off of Ghosteen and the subsequently released Carnage. There were a few exceptions, though, including Skeleton Tree’s dirge-like “I Need You” and “Girl in Amber,” played only at one Brooklyn show as a dedication to the late Anita Lane, our beloved Bad Seeds founding member and Cave’s ex (according to Nick’s dedication, it was written about her, which adds a new spin on the interpretation of the song). They also performed a select few older Bad Seeds classics like “Into My Arms” and the thematically appropriate “God Is In The House,” a whispering indictment of small-town small minds that was a surprising crowd-pleaser, at least at the four NYC shows I attended (except for the audience member on Thursday night who blurted, “Hail Satan!”).
While I obviously liked—and positively reviewed—both Ghosteen and Carnage, the live experience and new arrangements of the songs permanently altered my perception of the originals. During “Hand of God,” which is intimidating already on Carnage, Nick lept, fell to his knees, and screamed the fire and brimstone chorus over and over again in the audience members’ faces (all while pointing, of course) like he was going to bring out a basket of snakes. For “Shattered Ground,” the minimalistic song suddenly switched to Nick atonally banging on the piano shouting “Goodbye,” while the choir howled behind him. And in “Leviathan,” the repeated naff lyrics, “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” became a hypnotic incantation. In certain interpretations, the band mirrored the surrealism inherent in the songs’ hallucinatory lyrics and Warren’s mysterious dreamscapes by occasionally halting a song all at once, as if it never happened at all. Someone is getting ready for a set at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse!
Perhaps the most astounding rendition was “Hollywood,” a 15+ minute psychedelic odyssey through the Hollywood Hills to Malibu that is propelled forward by a heartbeat rhythm ricocheting through the entire song, including during its abrupt shift to Kisa’s story. The heartbeat in “Hollywood” also connected back to the sudden appearance of the sound in “White Elephant,” something I hadn’t noticed until seeing the songs live. Its presence, as well as the physical sensation of the loudness of the beat in “Hollywood,” acted as a symbol of the collectivity of the moment–our presence in a space after years of largely concert-less isolation. This collectivity was only further emphasized by the concluding song “Ghosteen Speaks,” which feels as close to a hymn as anything Nick has ever written with the elegiac imagery of being guided by a gathering of friends “singing to be free,” whether through life or death, with the repetition of “I am beside you” and the eventual turn, “You are beside me.”
Credit has to be given here to Cole, Ramus, and Rose whose impact on the divine nature of the concerts cannot be overstated. Granted, this isn’t the first time Nick has introduced a gospel choir into his live performances (or albums, for that matter). Wendi Rose herself participated in the 2004 Abattoir Blues tour with the Bad Seeds. Yet, something was different in this Nick Cave and Warren Ellis tour, perhaps due to the even more overt piousness of the songs themselves or simply the centrality of the choir in the performances.
It’s one thing for Nick to attempt to finally nail his mad preacher act and another to be supported by stellar singers, each with their own extensive background as gospel choir directors and session musicians, who have a clear understanding of the gospel and soul roots upon which Nick was drawing. So much so that the shows reminded me of my newfound aural obsession—The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story, a compilation of Southern gospel and blues from the Memphis-based D-Vine Spirituals record label, including songs like Elder Ward & The Gospel Four’s “God’s Going to Blow out the Sun” and The Shaw Sisters’s “My Time Ain’t Long.” Neither of which would have been out of place in Nick and Warren’s setlist.
Like the D-Vine Spirituals record label, which was started by a Black preacher and a white “hillbilly bandleader,” there was an unmistakable and complicated racial dynamic in three Black gospel singers backing up a suit-sporting rail-thin white Nick Cave, recalling David Bowie’s “blue-eyed soul” on Young Americans, particularly the song “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” And it’s quite clear all of them were aware of this fact and were willing to experiment with it, as evidenced by the superb cover of “Henry Lee” off of 1996’s Murder Ballads. On Murder Ballads, “Henry Lee,” a song with origins as far back as the 18th century, detailing, as Nick succinctly put it, “a story about the fury of a scorned woman,” is performed as a duet between Nick and his vocal and visual alt doppelganger, PJ Harvey. But at the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis concerts, Janet Ramus replaced Harvey, wailing the lyrics of revenge to Nick in her chillingly deep voice. As she sang of plunging the penknife into Henry Lee and the lights turned red, there was a play with the interracial complexity of duetting this particular song that also sonically returned the murder ballad to its early blues history.
But, almost as much as anyone on the stage, the audience for the shows also affected the spiritual atmosphere—raising their hands to the heavens, singing along, reaching out to touch Nick (ok, that was me), and sometimes audibly sobbing (no, that wasn’t me). The only thing that was missing was speaking in tongues, which I was ready to do! Part of this was the natural continuation of the transition that occurred in the live performances post-Skeleton Tree. After the release of that album in 2016, the first after Arthur’s death, Nick’s relationship with the audience markedly changed. The Bad Seeds shows, pre-Skeleton Tree, were distinctly antagonistic and while Nick’s performance style remains fearlessly confrontational, there’s an empathetic exchange between the audience and the band. Rather than simply something to watch (and sometimes watch out for as Nick comes hurtling at you), the shows, particularly in 2017 during the Skeleton Tree tour, felt like a group catharsis as if the band was channeling the audience’s communal grief, loss, and pain to eventually come to acceptance, as at the end of the song “Skeleton Tree” (“And it’s alright now…”).
This recent Nick Cave and Warren Ellis tour extended this group experience to even more transcendent ends, reaching towards peace and the kingdom in the sky rather than simply being alright. As Warren recently explained to Variety, “There’s something like communion taking place here, a spirituality between the audience and the music and us…It’s an experience of just wonderful stuff. Some of it deals with very sad things, but there it is, constantly uplifting. It’s all for an audience who loves him, and who he loves very much.”
I should say that this communion between the audience and performers was a particularly American response. Being the unhinged stan I am, I flew across the pond last October to attend one of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s Royal Albert Hall shows on the initial U.K. leg of the tour. That audience’s response was…quite British, stiffly sitting in their seats for the entire concert and barely moving. Not even a seated sway! Was this Delta wave COVID-phobia? I doubt it. None of us were wearing masks either (cancel me). Was it Londoners’ love of proper etiquette? Quite possibly. But, I want to attribute it to something different—when you present over-the-top religiosity to Americans, we surely know what to do. It’s like muscle memory.
And perhaps this also speaks to a renewed American desire for belief, particularly in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war (I spotted Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz in the audience), and America’s not-so-slow slide into global insignificance. As I’ve investigated previously, trash religiosity has made a comeback in the past couple of years, from Trump’s hilariously misguided groundswell of evangelical support to Kanye’s Chick-fil-A-supporting cult Sunday Service. It’s also notable that Jessica Chastain won the Academy Award for her portrayal of televangelist and clumped mascara icon Tammy Faye Bakker in the flawed but amusingly tacky The Eyes of Tammy Faye the same night I genuflected down the aisles at the Beacon Theatre. Unfortunately, Chastain’s demented acceptance speech got overlooked by another slap-happy moment (no, I’m not going there). But in case you missed it, she spent time talking about how she aspires to be more like Tammy Faye! As Chastain gushed, “And in times like this, I think of Tammy and I’m inspired by her radical acts of love.” You and me both, Jessica! We’re on the brink of a miracle!
Of course, televangelist viewers or Sunday Service attendees are not exactly the goth weirdos or New York wackos attending Nick Cave and Warren Ellis shows. And while I’ve clued into a particularly trashy growing strain of religiosity, Americans, as a whole, despite our reverent reputations and history of bizarre and overzealous dogmatics, have become more and more secular over time with about 29% of Americans describing their religion as “none.” But even for us “none”-worshipping godless heathens, doesn’t it feel good to have a little belief every once and while?
Now, I know. It’s not cool, especially in certain cynical circles (you know who you are). And while I’ve always had a love of unbalanced religiosity and the decadence of ritualism, there’s also safety in giving into spiritual communion with a musician who has been extremely vocal for decades about his skepticism about organized religion (“the concept of God has been hijacked by bullies and bigots…and psychopaths,” he once told Barney Hoskyns). No risk of born-again Nick or his support of some phobe pastor. Instead, Nick liberally uses the Bible, Buddhism, transcendental meditation, and other theological texts as creative source material, as well as tools for channeling the “mystery and beauty” of simple belief and allowing the audience to do so as well–even momentarily. As he wrote in The Red Hand Files, in response to a question about his faith, “I think we get what we are willing to believe, and that our experience of the world extends exactly to the limits of our interest and credence. I am interested in the idea of possibility and uncertainty. Possibility, by its very nature, extends beyond provable facts, and uncertainty propels us forward. I try to meet the world with an open and curious mind, insisting on nothing other than the freedom to look beyond what we think we know.”
And who can argue with that? At Macy’s, I (and Marion) believed in Santa Claus. At Kings and the Beacon, with Nick and Warren, I believed in the kingdom in the sky.