The Rockstar Way to do Coachella: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

On May 12, 2013 by Joy Shannon

nick cave at coachellaFor many reasons, going to Coachella has never appealed to me. Mainly, it’s the heat, the crowds, and sifting through the many bands I could care less about to see the choice few I adore. Though this past year it was a little tough to miss seeing one of my favorite performers- Nick Cave- make a rare appearance with both of his bands the Bad Seeds and Grinderman (the latter of which are not touring anymore, so this appearance was especially rare.)

Yet, there were two things that made up for me not braving the Coachella heat and crowds. Firstly, I had been one of the privileged few who got tickets to see one of Nick Cave’s album release shows for the new album “Push the Sky Away” last February.

You can read my review here. 

Secondly, I could watch the first weekend’s performance streaming online, from the comfort of my bed. Which I did, with a lovely glass of wine, and my best friend (and another huge Nick Cave fan) on the phone. This was enormously better than standing between 6 sweaty, smelly people, trying to peer over the tops of heads to see an ant-sized Nick Cave in-person, with a normal-sized Nick Cave on a TV anyway, while my feet hurt, and I probably had to pee.

So, I was glad to watch this concert from the comfort of my own home.

I was glad for musical reasons too. Festival shows are stressful shows to play for bands. Bands play short, intense sets to audiences that don’t really know who they are- or only some of them do- so they have to work really hard to engage them. After seeing Nick Cave’s album release show, which pretty much solely attracted his die-hard fans, the difference between his album release set and his Coachella set was marked. Even for a band like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who have been around for 30 years, there were moments that engaging with the festival audience seemed taxing. Cave’s answer to this challenge was to perform some of his more in-your-face material, which was a lot of his older theatrics, rather than his newer, more reflective and subtle work. Cave also chose to sing much of his set from the fence that divided the audience from the stage, in order to stir up the front row of the crowd.

The Bad Seeds began their set with the groove of “Jubilee Street” from the new album “Push the Sky Away.” This song builds into an epic, backed by a children’s choir and string section which are currently touring with the band for some of their shows, in addition to their usual guitars, piano, keyboards, drums, and vocals. Then, they jumped right into older, more dissonant material like “From Her to Eternity” and the narrative “Red Right Hand” in which Cave showed off his preacher-man theatrics. They played a noisy garage rock version of “Deanna” during which violinist Warren Ellis shredded hairs off of his bow as he furiously played. They tore into a ferocious “Jack the Ripper” and then slipped into the deceptively calm groove of “Stagger Lee,” which intermittently erupts into screaming choruses.

The murder ballad narrative “Stagger Lee” was the highlight of the show, showcasing Cave’s fearless intensity. Cave performed most of this song from the divider fence, standing over the front row of the crowd. Cave stood directly above audience members and fiercely delivered lines like “I’ll crawl over 50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole, said Stagger Lee” or “I’m Stagger Lee and you’d better get down on your knees and suck my dick!” I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the unsuspecting members of the crowd who might not have known what lyrics Cave was about to scream in their faces. If the audience didn’t know who Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were before that moment, they would remember them ever after.

The Bad Seeds closed with the moving songs “The Mercy Seat” and “Push the Sky Away,” made to look visually more epic by the strong desert winds blowing past the stage. “Push the Sky Away” was the only other song off the new album, besides “Jubilee Street” that the band played that night. While this was a gorgeous song to conclude this rousing set with, it was the set’s weakest moment. Had I only seen this song in this performance, I would have said it was lovely. But, having seen their February album release concert in Los Angeles, I have witnessed a finer, more connective performance of this closing number. This moment made me reflect on how challenging it is to play a subtle and sensitive song at a festival show. The environment of Coachella seems designed for the rousing songs that the Bad Seeds chose for the rest of their set, but is not as catered to such a reflective and minimalistic song. Yet, I have to commend the Bad Seeds for having the balls to try such a risky song which was such a contrast to the other songs in their set.

In the end, I was so happy I saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform a decadent, lusciously-played, nearly 2-hour set for their album release show, instead of braving the festival heat and crowds to catch a rushed- though intensely performed- 45-minute set. I was also much happier watching it from my bed with wine. And when it was over, I was already in bed! That felt immensely more rockstar than actually going to Coachella.

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