Live From KCRW
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Live From KCRW
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Upon its release last February, Push the Sky Away immediately asserted itself as an outlier amid the Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds catalogue. It was the rare album of theirs to favor vaporous, smoke-ring ambience over the band’s notorious gavel-crushing wallop, and drifting, abstract lyricism over Cave’s usual scripture-scaled narratives. But it’s not like this risky low-key detour hurt their live draw: the Bad Seeds’ spring 2013 tours saw them selling out soft-seaters worldwide, and a recently released 2014 itinerary sees them returning to many of the same markets at even bigger venues. Of course, it helped that Cave and co. amplified and adrenalized Push the Sky Away’s hushed tones with the assistance of guest string sections and children’s choirs, thereby placing the new material on equal footing with the old warhorses. But to prove just how on their game Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were in 2013, the band offer us a portrait not of a typical night on the job, but of what they can do when chillin’ on a day off.
Live From KCRW was recorded last April during the week separating the Bad Seeds’ two appearances at Coachella (where Cave, Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, and Jim Sclavunos also pulled double duty with the their bastard-son band Grinderman), before a small studio audience at the station’s famed Santa Monica studios. And though the Bad Seeds discography is hardly lacking for concert documents—this counts as the fourth—Live From KCRW is, much like Push the Sky Away itself, something of a wild card among them. The Bad Seeds are without a doubt one of the most consistently exhilarating live acts in the biz, a band worthy of any discerning rock fan’s bucket list. But they’re also guilty at times of being a predictable one. Their setlists tend to showcase whatever new album’s being promoted alongside a familiar greatest-hits revue of their most canonical songs from the 1980s and 90s; to see the Bad Seeds on tour this year, you’d think Push the Sky Away was their first album since 1997, their shows rarely touching upon the totemic works released in the interim.
So Live From KCRW is distinguished not just by its loose, casual vibe—with Cave good-naturedly honoring audience requests, provided they’re “on this very short list”—but by its welcome variations from the standard Bad Seeds script with a healthy selection of deep cuts that don’t get aired out that often. It begins with Push the Sky Away’s hazy-headed pocket history of modern civilization, “Higgs Boson Blues”, whose Miley Cyrus name-drops elicit audible giggles from the studio attendees. Its appearance here underscores just how perfectly Cave predicted her year, with the line “Hannah Montana/ Does the African Savannah” standing as an almost biblical prophecy of twerk-gate. And the song establishes a marked contrast here between the playful audience interaction and the solemnly reverential readings of some of the most understatedly devastating songs in the Cave songbook. The four Push the Sky Away selections find complementary counterparts in the sublimely sinister Your Funeral My Trial standout “Stranger Than Kindess”, the hymn-like title track to 2001’s No More Shall We Part, and two selections from Cave’s other “quiet” album, The Boatman’s Call: the bittersweet anti-anthem “People Ain’t No Good” and an absolutely stunning “Far From Me” that allows more room for Conway Savage’s funereal organ lines to shine, transforming it from a simple break-up song to a requiem for the ruined relationship chronicled within.
The set’s meditative spell is broken only by the farewell dusting of the old Henry’s Dream rager “Jack the Ripper”, which is revelatory not just as a display of the Bad Seeds’ bruising muscle, but how much effort it takes to flex it. In concert, the Bad Seeds routinely perform with all the cocksure confidence of a band that’s seemingly never had an off night, but the amusing 90 seconds of banter that precede “Jack the Ripper”—wherein Cave confers with his mates about the proper chords and key—betrays a rare, up-close glimpse of the volatility at the root of their imposing sound. At the same time, Live From KCRW shows that the Bad Seeds’ power isn’t entirely dependent on volume. The set’s highlight is a skeletal, piano-based rendition of signature showstopper “The Mercy Seat” that shirks the original’s stormy, cinematic sweep to take us deeper inside the fragile psyche of the song’s electric-chair-bound protagonist; he may claim he’s “not afraid to die,” but the repeated, intensifying incantations of the chorus make his underlying sense of panic all too palpable. It is therefore no coincidence that, instead of a performance shot, the record’s front cover photo shows Cave sitting by his lonesome in the studio amid a sprawl of equipment and road cases. The recordings within reveal the rationale: Even when the Bad Seeds perform in stripped-down mode, there is still much heavy lifting to do.
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