Nick Cave and Warren Ellis stretch rock balladry to its limits at U.S. Tour Opener
In North Carolina, the Australian musicians counterbalanced scary headlines with songs both mournful and joyful
News of the escalating war between Russia and Ukraine set the mood on Shrove Tuesday at Nick Cave’s North American tour kickoff with longtime Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis.
That morning, Cave spoke out about his support for the Ukrainian people as he announced the cancellation of his Russian and Ukrainian tour dates. Hours later inside Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the conflict was top of mind as Cave dedicated somber songs to Ukraine and excoriated musical demons in moments of spiritual warfare that conjured (but never mentioned) the day’s reports about missile strikes and tank convoys.
While folks at home tuned in to President Biden’s State of the Union address on TV, Cave and Ellis engrossed their crowd in a set of meditative compositions punctuated by fiery art-rock overtures. Cave was talkative and informal, tossing his sheet music to the ground as he led the audience through contemplative ruminations on Elvis Presley, love, and Jesus, including “Spinning Song,” “Bright Horses,” and “Night Raid” from the 2019 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album Ghosteen (written after the 2015 death of Cave’s son, Arthur). “Carnage,” the title track from Cave and Ellis’s 2021 album, followed, along with a spare and moving segment featuring “Ghosteen,” “Lavender Fields,” “Waiting for you,” and “I Need You.” Seated stage left with a keyboard in his lap or standing with violin, Ellis served as a proper foil for Cave’s vocals, his myriad keyboard, string, and bell sounds recalling the dozens of film soundtracks their music has filled.
The pair’s first uproarious rant of the night was Carnage’s “White Elephant,” with its lyrics about guns, politics, and the afterlife. The throbbing trance “Hand of God” followed a few songs later, resembling a religious revival with a Broadway beat ala 1971’s Jesus Christ Superstar and the band’s superb backing vocalists Wendi Rose, T Jae Cole, and Janet Ramus dressed in shiny caftans, harmonizing while waving tambourines in the air. Although both songs were performed as part of Cave and Ellis’s European tour last fall, on this night they exuded the increasing intensity of recent world events.
Rather than distract from the playing, the lingering pandemic and geopolitical instability added gravitas to Cave’s already weighty catalog but never robbed the music of its joy. In the space of 140 minutes and 23 songs, ballad after ballad provided catharsis: Cave eased into “Galleon Ship” before leaning into the song’s plea, “We are not alone”—a phrase that made it a Ghosteen standout and a centerpiece of Cave’s 2020 lockdown film and subsequent live album, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace.
The final encore included two songs that matched the week’s gamut of emotions: 1997’s “Into My Arms” and 2019’s “Ghosteen Speaks.” While Cave sat at the piano for the former with a spotlight projecting his profile on the theater wall, he paced slowly during the latter as the backing vocalists crescendoed. He shuffled across the stage, side-to-side in his signature dark suit, repeating the song’s refrain. “I am beside you, you are beside me,” he sang, evangelizing to the audience with a surge of hope. “Look for me.”
Photo by Kristi York Wooten