The Milwaukee Theatre is clearly not designed for rock and roll. Why they put on such shows there is beyond me. Even Sting back in 2004 seemed kinda edgy for this room. The overdressed, gregarious bar staff is ill-equipped to serve the thirst of even a well-below-capacity horde of Nick Cave fans (or even Leonard Cohen fans) in a timely fashion. The sterile decor of the hall itself screams middle-school auditorium, complete with underperforming PA that popped and cracked repeatedly under the extreme duress of the Bad Seeds’ sonic onslaught Friday night. And none of these factors made much of an impact on the show, as Australia’s creepiest export led his band and audience through an intoxicating séance of storytelling and noise.
The elder statesman of experimental rock could be forgiven if after over 30 years in the business he remained relatively composed onstage and delivered his chilling odes to the dark side of humanity like a proper middle-aged man, which seemed plausible when the band opened with the mellow "We No Who U R". But next came "Jubilee Street", certainly one of the more aggressive tracks on last year's Push The Sky Away, but that recorded track was nothing compared to this live rendition. At first, almost as if by design, guitarist Barry Adamson could scarcely keep his strumming slow enough to jive with the dead plod of the drums, but after the first chorus the tempo shifted to normal speed. As the song ramped up to its climax, it unexpectedly got faster and faster and exponentially more intense, prompting a mass exodus of folks who had won tickets from 88-nine by the time it was over.
It appeared that Cave had no intention of aging any more gracefully than he'd spent his youth. There were quieter moments of course, as when he played piano and crooned "Into My Arms" and "People Ain't No Good" mid-set, and the ghostly, meditative closer "Push The Sky Away". For the most part, though, Cave stalked and leapt around the stage like a caged beast. He frequently sank into the front row of the crowd, blessing them with his touch like a vagabond cult priest and conducting them feverishly in chants and swaying. Even from the rafters it was disconcerting at times, particularly when he'd beckon the coven closer, his voice dripping with venom as he'd shout "Come on, come on!" The band was equally riveting, taking already dynamic and unnerving songs like "From Her To Eternity" and "The Mercy Seat" and "Stagger Lee" and pushing them to ear-splitting extremes of violence.
Surely Nick Cave isn't actually an evil, twisted man, nor a powerful necromancer. He's just an entertainer who throws all of his being into creation and performance, and as such, he's one of the most committed and convincing singer/songwriters the world has ever seen. I wouldn't call the Bad Seeds "precise" or "virtuosic"; at times they had trouble staying together rhythmically, but their shambolic nature only added to the overall tension. Together, Cave and his band created a grand illusion of impending disaster, that they might bring the building crumbling down around us all if they felt like it, and that we would be lucky to get out alive. They only broke character in their expressions of gratitude before leaving the stage, and we all felt lucky just to be there.