A little over four years after they played The Orange Peel, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds made a memorable return to Asheville with a concert-of-the-year candidate on Wednesday, June 7, at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
In the wake of pre-entrance music that attracted people to the front of the venue from all directions, quickly overtaking those who’d shelled out the big bucks for the first few rows, the lights dimmed and the band — led by multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis — took the stage in slim black suits. Once his colleagues were situated, Cave entered in matching attire and sat front and center for “Anthrocene,” one of seven tracks off the ensemble’s eight-song 2016 album Skeleton Tree to make the set list (the terrific Streets-like “Rings of Saturn” being the lone exception).
Nimble and often in motion, Cave spent much of the evening working the edges of the stage. Not shy about getting up close and personal, his vocal delivery remained strong, despite the intimate quarters, while his free hand weaved over fans’ outstretched digits as if conducting a school of fish, seeking out strong arms from time to time on which to lean. The interaction reached an apex around the show’s midway point when he accepted a small package from a fan, the contents of which noticeably moved him and elicited a crouched embrace and words of thanks. [Xpress contributor Jonathan Ammons, who saw the show from the third row, reports it was a bracelet, which Cave placed on his wrist.]
Captivating as Cave was throughout the career-spanning selections, Ellis was just as engaging in his own regard. Situated to Cave’s left, the long-bearded composer shifted effortlessly between guitar, piano and amplified violin, the latter of which he frequently strummed like an entirely different instrument and at other times produced electrified wails unexpected from such a device. Following his frontman’s lead, Ellis also had his share of rocking out, delivering a few karate kicks to the air and swinging his fiddle high behind him while showing off some nifty footwork.
The backing band of guitar, drums, bass, auxiliary percussion and keys were crucial to constructing the group’s overall sounds, but Cave and Ellis were clearly at the ensemble’s forefront. It’s unusual to see two musicians so obviously the creators of each song’s central elements, and even rarer to witness complex orchestration of such magnitude from fairly straightforward sources. The songs proved no mere studio creations and translated well to the stage with pleasant variations, and witnessing the ensemble meticulously build the handful of compositions that start out soft then explode (namely “Jubilee Street”) was a thrill.
In accord with the notable sonic side, the visuals beyond Cave’s and Ellis’ organic theatrics were likewise pleasing. The effective light show hopped between an array of hues that fit each song well. Though the use of the titular color in “Red Right Hand” might have been a bit spot on, the sight of Cave devilishly aglow while growling out the sinister lyrics — augmented with a cheer-inducing reference to an unnamed sinister figure’s Tweets — was one of the evening’s more iconic moments. Elsewhere, a smattering of beautifully haunting imagery — from a B&W blow-up of Cave’s live face (that made him look like Lon Chaney) during “Jesus Alone” to a ghostly recording of Danish vocalist Else Torp contributing her verse from “Distant Sky” — classed up the rear-stage projection screen.
With plenty of energy left, the band got its four-song encore off to a rousing start with “Weeping Song,” then earned its loudest audience response of the night with the even more raucous “Stagger Lee.” Descending halfway into the orchestra seats for “Push the Sky Away,” Cave got closer still with his fans and implored them with the repeated chorus to “just keep on pushing.” The message felt like the right one to help combat these uncertain times and sent concertgoers home on a musical and philosophical high they won’t soon forget.