At the Vogue Theatre on Saturday, April 6
As even the most deliriously enraptured fan would have begrudgingly agreed, Nick Cave’s long-awaited return to Vancouver could have been better.
The Other Man in Black could have, for example, flown Kylie Minogue halfway around the world from his native Australia to faithfully recreate “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, from 1996’s indispensable Murder Ballads. He could have tacked the baroque B-side wonder “(I'll Love You) Till the End of the World” onto an already perfect two-hour set list. And he could have enlisted the entire Sydney Symphony Orchestra to up the evening’s already considerable drama and beauty, preferably after walking across the water from Down Under to North America.
Was all of the above too much to ask? Well, considering the alternative-music icon gave Vancouver a night that was part spine-chilling spectacle and part old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll exorcism, probably.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds hadn’t played the Lower Mainland in nearly 20 years, the band’s last appearance in these parts coming as part of Lollapalooza ’94. That show had the singer famously walking off-stage midset after being hit by what was—depending on who you talk to—a shoe, a pack of cigarettes, a full six-pack of Foster’s Lager, or a dead koala bear. Saturday’s packed-to-capacity stand at the Vogue gave Vancouver a great idea what it’s been missing all these years. Can you say "fucking mesmerizing"?
Backed by a seven-piece edition of the Bad Seeds, with multi-instrumentalist/madman Warren Ellis in the role of second in command, Cave didn’t exactly hit the stage swinging. The career-spanning set started out with “We Know Who U R” off the group’s reflective new album, Push the Sky Away.
The magic first hit halfway through the follow-up, “Jubilee Street”, off the same record; starting out all spartan and sparse, with Ellis’s guitar wavering in and out of the mix, it suddenly exploded into an all-hands-on-deck symphonic assault. The merch table was offering up earplugs at two bucks a pop, along with the warning “It’s going to be loud.” That was no idle threat.
What followed was Cave showing why he’s one of the greatest showmen in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Clad in a white shirt, pinstriped grey suit jacket and matching pants, he spent large swaths of the evening wild-eyed and sweat-soaked, clutching the hands of the faithful, planting kisses on the heads and lips of fans, and graciously accepting any gifts handed his way (tiny harmonicas on necklaces, woolly-mammoth headdresses, bras). The double-barrelled gutter blues of “Higgs Boson Blues” was nothing less than astonishing, this largely due to Cave grabbing the hands of audience members and pressing them to his drenched chest while he howled “Can you feel my heart beating?”
The set selection was a dream. Had you shown up praying for “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”, “The Mercy Seat”, “Red Right Hand”, “From Her to Eternity”, or “Deanna”, you went home feeling like Cave had delivered nothing but the hits. Those who wanted a crack band at the peak of its awe-inspiring powers got to marvel at the 12-bar blues explosion “Jack the Ripper”, which the singer concluded by proudly announcing: “That was a good version of that song.” When someone in the front row flippantly agreed, he shot back good naturedly but with: “No, it’s hard. It’s a 12-bar blues song”. Met with a laugh from the crowd, he stone-cold deadpanned: “That’s not funny.”
The apex of the show you’ll be sorry you missed for the rest of the year? That would have been the live exorcism that was “Stagger Lee”. Cave spent the entire five-minutes-plus duration of the set-ending song shaking and swaggering like a fire-and-brimstone Old West preacher, the audience singing right along with him. Talk about profoundly moving: a stone-cold genius holding hands with the flock as those attending the service chanted, “Well, bartender, it’s plain to see/I’m that bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee.”
It was almost enough to make you feel sorry for the AV Club concert cretin in the pit at stage left who spent the entire fucking night studiously filming every second of the concert, to the considerable outrage of everyone around him. Here’s hoping you enjoy your glorified YouTube footage, you inconsiderate shit stain, because you missed one hell of a show.
Could Cave have been better? Well, yes. Hands up if you were hoping to hear the epic ode to stabbing, drowning, bludgeoning, and bodily dismemberment that is “The Curse of Millhaven”. But asking for something above and beyond what we were lucky to get would just be greedy. This 20-years-in-the-making night was impossibly perfect. Please, Nick Cave, come back soon.