Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Paramount Theater, Oakland
March 13, 2022
Photos by Geoffrey Smith II.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to like this show. I’m one of the few people I know who hasn’t been crazy about the last handful of records that Nick Cave has released, my interest in his output all but disappearing after the 2013 album Push The Sky Away. But something happened at the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis show at The Paramount Theater in Oakland on March 13th that shook me to my core and made me reevaluate my opinion on “late-era” Nick Cave.
For those uninitiated in the cult of Nick Cave, the Australian musician began in the early 1980s as the frontman of The Birthday Party, billed as the most violent band in the world. Once that group disbanded, he and Birthday Party member Mick Harvey formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1984, a band which has seen over a dozen members join and depart its ranks since they began. Joining the band in 1997 was violinist Warren Ellis, who joined at a time when Nick Cave’s music began to loosen its grip on the murder ballads and songs of revenge that it had become most famous for, and began writing about renewed interest in God and love. Since then, and especially since the departure of Mick Harvey from the band in 2009, Warren Ellis has become the musical foil to Nick’s lyrics.
Warren Ellis took the stage, along with singers Wendy Rose, T Jae Cole, and Janet Ramus, and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Hastiley, before playing the opening song of Ghosteen, the most recent Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, “Spinning Song.” After the first couple of minutes of ambience, Nick Cave, looking as ageless as ever, strode onstage to sing to the audience about the king of rock ‘n roll crashing on a stage in Vegas.
The song, as well as many others that appeared in the set, reminded me of material from the most recent Bjork album Utopia, not necessarily in terms of sound or genre, but in the rejection of “traditional” song structure; few of the recent material in the set had anything that could be described as a chorus or verses, with songs like “Ghosteen” and “Hollywood” feeling like multi-part epics, each one taking over a dozen minutes to slowly unfold from one section to the next, equal parts ambient meditations on mortality, avant-garde lyricism that’s open to interpretation, and lush piano ballads.
Something to bear in mind going into this show is that this is not a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show. This is firmly Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and freed from the constraints that can come with having a band with such an extensive body of work as The Bad Seeds, the two were able to focus almost entirely on material from the last Bad Seeds album and their own album from last year, Carnage, something that I’m not sure Nick and Warren could have done in the context of a Bad Seeds show. There was no “Red Right Hand,” no “From Her To Eternity,” no “The Mercy Seat,” and I feel like some fans would have left disappointed from a Bad Seeds show that didn’t feature a chunk of “classic” songs from that band’s back catalogue.
A particular one-two punch of emotion came mid-way through the set, as the band played “Waiting For You” and “I Need You” back to back, two songs that are arguably influenced by the death of Nick Cave’s son in 2016, the latter song ending with Nick repeating frantically, “Just breathe, just breathe, just breathe,” over and over until his soothing voice was reduced to a harsh bark that barely resembled the sound of a human. The death of his son wasn’t the only recent loss that was acknowledged by Nick during the show, as later in the set he dedicated the song “Girl In Amber” to Anita Lane, Nick’s long-term girlfriend in the 1980s and original member of The Bad Seeds, who passed away in April of last year.
That isn’t to say that every single song in the set was a meditation on mortality and the meaning of existence as you navigate through grief, with two songs from last year’s album Carnage finding Nick falling back into the role that he held as the singer of the post-punk band The Birthday Party in the early 1980s, that of the apocalyptic prophet of doom. “White Elephant” saw Nick pointing his fingers at the audience, telling them “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face if you think of coming around here.” While the song was never a favorite of mine, it was performed with such fervor and ferocity that I couldn’t help but be enthralled. The other song, which for me might have been the highlight of the entire show, was the opening song from Carnage, “Hand Of God,” which found Johnny Hastiley pounding on the drums and the three backing singers and Warren Ellis encircling Nick as he crouched down, all six people onstage shouting “Hand of God!” over and over again, the amber lighting quickly changing to harsh reds. I felt as if I was witnessing the end of the world and there was nowhere else that I would have rather been. The recorded version of the song has nowhere near the ferocity and feeling of fire and brimstone that the band injected it with in its live version, and almost everything after felt like a comedown from the emotional catharsis of the song.
Yes, there were some songs, particularly during the three encores (yes, really, three), from further back in Nick’s catalogue, Nick pausing at his piano before saying, “This next song is ancient. It’s a very old song. It’s… mid-career Nick Cave,” before playing the opening piano part to “Henry Lee” from the 1996 Murder Ballads album, a song that famously saw him duet with then-lover PJ Harvey, here her part being sung beautifully by Janet Ramus. The song received thunderous applause once the tale of heartbreak and murder finished, however, every song received thunderous applause at their conclusions.
After the band left the stage following the end of the second encore, the 21 songs already played still weren’t enough. Dammit, the crowd wanted, no, demanded more. The house lights still weren’t on. I saw someone manning the soundboard look at the person next to him nervously, neither of them appearing certain if this was the end of the show or not. A couple of minutes later the band came back onstage, all of them taking their places, Nick sitting down at his piano and saying, “Alright, we’ve got one last song for you before the venue decides to kick us out. And Warren here happens to play the flute on it!” Warren put the flute to his lips and the band began playing “Breathless,” the song being the most hopeful and upbeat of the entire night. I was dancing in the aisles and witnessing others doing the same, the song ending what could have been a set entirely focused on grief and sorrow on a note of hopefulness and love. I left the show with a renewed sense of respect for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t shed a handful of tears during the show. Bravo, bravo.
Here’s a slide show with more photos by Geoffrey Smith II: