Death, anger, violence, retribution – no one said a Nick Cave concert was going to be easy.
Lyrically (and musically too, on a few of the numbers) his performance at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this week was raw id – as the 59-year-old prowled the stage like an enraged preacher.
Words were declaimed, rather than sung:
Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals
And a child is born on his brother’s heels
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red…
So Cave described the coming on a devastating flood on the Mississippi town, while his band, the Bad Seeds, created an apocalyptic din behind him.
Later in the evening, early lines in “Stagger Lee” gave us an indication of the direction the murder ballad was set to take:
So he walked through the rain and he walked through the mud
Till he came to a place called The Bucket Of Blood…
But the real sturm und drung wasn’t to be found in such surging, nihilistic narratives. Towards the end of their two-and-a-half hour performance, Cave and his cohorts dimmed the lights, fired the projector, and slipped into the stately “Distant Sky”, a recent composition widely speculated to be about the tragic death of the singer’s son.
The song is a narrative of escape, as one lover tells another that it’s time to leave a painful place. It opened with Cave himself speaking his lines, to the sound of a church-like organ: “Call the gasman, cut the power out, we can set out, set out for the distant skies”.
Then the lights dimmed, and a ghostly image appeared behind the band – that of soprano Else Torp, who echoed Cave’s call to leave:
Let us go now, my darling companion
Set out for the distant skies
See the sun, see it rising
See it rising, rising in your eyes
The specter and the singer made for a ghostly, poignant performance, undercut by the grief of Cave’s lyrics: “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us…but they lied”.
The performance also made for something far more desperate and affecting than the earlier, louder songs – not least for Torp’s painful prayer at the song’s end.
Soon the children will be rising, will be rising
This is not for our eyes
It was a moment of grief mixed with resurrection mixed with pain, that left the audience of 2,800 people standing and sitting in respectful silence.
Not for long. Within minutes “The Weeping Song” brought us back to the preacher Cave, pacing and proclaiming.
But the effect remained – for some emotions, quiet is the real loud.