Since I've spent the last hour and a half or so wondering whether or not I should write about seeing Nick Cave at the Chicago Theater I figured the best way to stop wondering was to just start writing. For one I couldn't possibly review this show with any measure of impartiality. There are a few reasons for this- 1) I've been a longtime fan and find that he's one of those artists who I love nearly everything he does and 2) my wife bought our tickets in the first minutes of the band's presale and we discovered, once we arrived, that we were sitting in the very front row right in the center. Most people would be elated, and I was definitely amazed at the idea of being so close to a band that I've admired very much for many years in such a massive theater, but my predominant feeling ended up being trepidation and nervousness. I'm usually standing towards the back at shows as I find it easier to take the whole experience in and process it. When you're right up front that isn't going to be your experience-- you're right in the thick of things. At most shows you have to fight tooth and nail to get up there and stay there and being in the thick of things has never been a priority of mine at shows. What's more, and I'd somehow pushed this out of my mind even though I knew better, Nick Cave is an incredibly confrontational and dynamic performer who spends a lot of energy connecting with the audience very intensely. He gets in people's faces in the front row-- he points right at you, looks you in the eye and kneels down towards you while he's singing. As if the music weren't intense enough. I'd describe it as thrilling with an air of menace. You feel like you might get kicked in the head (even though you are pretty sure this has never happened at a Nick Cave show).
I seem to be going through some kind of weird life crisis right now as I find myself having worked on my band for over 12 years and still haven't really gotten anywhere. At least not anywhere where I get a lot of outside validation and recognition for my music that I feel so passionately about. I am capable of being a passionate performer-- my focus is usually to get as lost in the storm of sound I'm whipping up and get overwhelmed by the emotions that singing my songs awakens in me. When I started making my own music all those years ago outside validation and recognition weren't my goals-- I mainly figured they'd come about naturally as I got my music and message across at shows and that it would have a bit of a snowball effect. As the years go on, though, I find this hasn't been the case and I often chalk it up to a lack of charisma. I'm a rather meek person and being loved and adored by a ton of people has never been a priority of mine. I'm also not the most social person; even though I've met people who could've helped us out along the way I was always reluctant to call in favors. I didn't like feeling like I was using people who I considered friends to further my own selfish ends. I've always cultivated a lack of pretension that people who believe in the necessity of social networking and such find off-putting. This has all combined into a lack of charisma which is ultimately why I've never attracted legions of fans and believers to my music.
Why did seeing Nick Cave whip up all of this self-evaluation? It didn't on its own-- these things have been on my mind for the past couple of days for a variety of random reasons and circumstances that are mainly unrelated. The thing is that until tonight the concept of charisma has always seemed a bit vague and abstract to me. Being in the front row at a Nick Cave show made the whole idea crystal clear. Based on what I've been talking about I've always cast charisma in a negative light, but there are cases where it is used as a positive force. Cave could easily take on a more sedate performing style-- there was a portion of the evening devoted to the Bad Seeds' more restrained moments which proved a nice relief from all of the unhinged intensity that had been building up over the course of the night. This ended up kind of being the highlight of the show for me-- they played 'Your Funeral, My Trial,' 'People Ain't No Good' and 'Love Letter' while Cave sat at the piano and violinist Warren Ellis sat in a chair with his legs crossed playing some beautifully yearning violin lines where he had been flailing like a madman during the beginning section of the set constructing monumental sculptures of squalling noise. Once this section was over the set ramped back up to its previous height of intensity fairly quickly and they had recharged enough energy that they were able to push it to new heights. My point is that Nick Cave doesn't have to trot out this confrontational performance style every night, but he does and he is terrifyingly great at it. The only other band that comes to mind that is able to whip a crowd into as great of a frenzy is Thee Oh Sees. I was awestruck by the amount of effort he put into connecting with the audience. Most people who adopt this performance style approach it from completely the wrong angle, but it's nice to know that it's still worth doing. He doesn't feel entitled to the adulation he receives-- he works for it. Pretty damned hard, too.
It was just an odd night because here I was enjoying a fantastic show by a band I've loved for years and years and there was this undertone of discomfort to it. I never realized how outside of my comfort zone being at the front row of a show that size was for me. It made me feel a bit old and lame and yet here was this 50-something year old man tearing it up onstage in a way that I could never possibly imagine equalling. It was a sobering example of seeing what it takes and realizing you just don't have it and you never will.
Sharon Van Etten was a wonderful choice for an opener and I considered her set an unexpected surprise as she was announced as an opener after we'd bought our tickets. She played only with a drummer tonight and for only 30 minutes. She did start with 'How We Met' and played most of my favourites from 'Tramp' as well as two excellent new songs. She looked a bit nervous up there. I knew exactly how she felt. It was a pretty far cry from how relaxed and informal she seemed at Lincoln Hall last year, but it was still really wonderful. She came out and sang backup vocals with Nick Cave as well and I found myself focusing my attention on her when what was going on in front of me became too much for me. It was very comforting. There are few shows I've been to in my life with that underlying sense of danger that anything could happen. I could see why people find it alluring in shows, but there's only so much of it that I can take. The next show I'm seeing is at the end of the month-- The Warlocks at Subterranean. It'll probably still be intense, just for different reasons. I'll be at the back for that one, I can assure you.
As for my 'nobody likes my beautiful music boo-hoo, poor me' crisis, I have those more often than I care to admit. That's the type of vanity that I'm prone to. Plus, I'd stop making music and doing my band if I could, but I can't seem to. Believe me, I've tried. Many many times...