Story and Photo by Tony Bonyata"Babe, I'm on fire!," screamed the slender frontman in the razor thin black suit at the top of his lungs. It wasn't screams of elation either, but rather a plead for somebody - anybody - to put him out. Maybe if the gathered mob at the Chicago Theatre last Saturday wasn't starring agape as if witnessing a public execution, they might have actually been able to help the possessed man.
It was this pleading, often antagonistic stage persona created by the enigmatic Nick Cave that made this powerful performance with his seven-piece sonic assailants The Bad Seeds so mesmerizing, thought-provoking and, at times, even downright frightening.
While Cave's last three studio albums (from The Boatman's Call to his most recent effort Nocturama) have featured a more mature, dark balladeer than that of his cathartic work with his first punk band The Birthday Party or even his own earlier solo work with The Bad Seeds, his performance, nonetheless, proved to be as bloodcurdlingly as any fire-and-brimstone passage pulled from the Old Testament.
Even more than their last stint in Chicago a little over a year ago, the band and their leader were much more explosive, agitating and dangerous this time around. Maybe they felt the need to make up for the loss of Blixa Bargeld's guitar (Bargeld who, after nearly twenty years with The Bad Seeds, recently made an amicable split from the band). Maybe they missed some of the sordid lust of their past. Or maybe they just finally came to the realization that there's no redemption waiting in the wings for rock 'n' roll sinners.
Whatever the reason, it didn't seem to matter, as the band blazed through gothic sonnets, shadowy ballads and powder-to-dust rockers alike. If Bargeld's deconstructionist approach to guitar was missed, the band, and, in particular, Warren Ellis with his blistering and often unorthodox approach to his violin, along with the fallen-Saint Nick himself, more than made up for his absence. As Cave blew through nearly as many cigarettes as he did songs (half a pack at last count), he played out his pulpit-pounding frontman role more than ever. Even on some of the more poignant, heartfelt numbers, such as "Hallelujah" and "Still In Love" he stood his ground, front and center, eschewing the silent cries from his baby grand piano during these moments, in favor of inflecting them with his lone rich, baritone voice.
When he did decide to stride the keys, however, it was instead to strip the original anger from "The Mercy Seat" only to add an extra jolt of electricity to the climatic ending, as well as the dissonant, sour notes he added to a deliciously wicked version of The Birthday Party's "Wild World."
While there were moments, such as "Nobody's Baby Now" and "Bring It On" (which featured a spirited duet with The Saints' lead vocalist Chris Bailey), where the band threatened to crossover into the world of pop, these sidesteps were quickly remedied, however, by a pounding, abominable version of "West Country Girl," as well as the erupting "Tupelo," which saw a possessed Cave leaping about and passionately yelping as if wrestling with demons from within.
With dynamics that went from heartbeat to heart attack at the drop of a hat, The Bad Seeds still proved to be one of the nastiest bands for one of the nastiest frontmen in rock. They were on fire, alright. Just don't dare try and put them out.
Set List for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 06/21/03 Chicago show
1. Wonderful Life
2. Red Right Hand
3. West Country Girl
5. Sad Waters
7. Bring It On (with Chris Bailey)
8. Do You Love Me? (pt. 1)
9. Still In Love
10. Loom of the Land
11. The Mercy Seat
12. Christina The Astonishing
13. From Her To Eternity
14. Wild World
15. Nobody's Baby Now
17. God Is In The House
18. Babe, I'm on Fire
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