In advance of Nick Cave’s third appearance in Milwaukee – Wednesday night at the Riverside Theater, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave. – I found myself waxing nostalgic about the previous times I’d seen him: once in 1981 at a legendarily chaotic show in New York with his band The Birthday Party and again in 2014, here in Milwaukee with The Bad Seeds.
If those experiences already offered quite a contrast – and they did – his (mostly) solo performance on vocals and grand piano added yet another dimension.
“We’re going to play some old songs, some new songs, and some you’ve never heard before,” Cave promised at the outset of the exactly two-hour show, “but in an extremely reduced manner.”
And that’s exactly what happened ... sort of.
Accompanied on bass guitar on most songs by Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood, Cave played tunes from his solo work; his roughly dozen and a half LPs with The Bad Seeds; his collaborations with Warren Ellis; and with Grinderman, but – as expected – nothing from The Birthday Party days.
However, while the arrangements were certainly stripped down, there was little else that could be described as “reduced” in the show.
Cave gave impassioned performances, laced with bits of wit, of two dozen songs. He’s a fine pianist and in possession of a highly distinctive voice, and Greenwood’s low-key support was always tasteful.
Cave engaged with the audience between every song, often getting up from the piano and grabbing a mic to interact with the crowd at the front of the stage.
In responding to nearly every shouted comment from the house, Cave was often witty – once turning to Greenwood and quipping, “I bet Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) doesn’t say stuff like that” – but occasionally allowed his sardonic side to seep through the showman exterior.
When one audience member shouted a request, Cave suggested she go home and play the record, but then quickly caught himself.
“Sorry,” he said, “that was unnecessarily brutal. I’m trying to curb that instinct.”
That instinct is, perhaps, a moody, haunting side that has fueled a 40-plus-year career of dark lyrics and melodies, and in Cave's earliest days with The Birthday Party, led to that 1981 show being stopped after a bloodied and out of it Cave put his head through a drum head.
But that young guy is almost hard to square with the mature Cave onstage these days.
This Cave has a new paperback edition of his latest book in shops, recently released a new live LP with Ellis, and has a quartet of films available for streaming. He’s also doing a book tour concurrent with this concert tour.
(There’s also a new documentary about the wild days of The Birthday Party, too, called, “Mutiny in Heaven.”)
And while it’s wonderful to see Cave continuing to create at an apparently fever pitch, looking healthy and bantering breezily from the stage, it’s the hauntedness that has always given his music a chiaroscuro depth, even as he’s transformed from a once sometimes terrifying frontman to a comfortable showman who encourages audience participation and whose merch stand sells canvas tote bags emblazoned with his name.
Anytime Cave sang a love (or lost love) song – like "I Need You" or "(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?" – and you thought things could start to get sappy, the darkness lingered beneath, either in lyrics, melody or mood, grounding it all.
Besides, the frenetic tension of songs like “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry,” “The Mercy Seat” and “Jubilee Street” was never far behind.
The crowd of about 2,000 met each tune with rapturous applause, which Cave drank in, his lighting director often bringing up the house lights so the singer could see.
The Australian-born Cave, who lives in England, was scheduled to return to Milwaukee in 2020 with The Bad Seeds in support of the 2019 record, “Ghosteen,” but the pandemic put paid to that, and so nine years of pent-up demand was clearly on display Wednesday night.
However, at the end of the night the thirsty crowd looked quenched, and so did Cave. Still, let's hope we don't have to wait nearly a decade again.
Girl in Amber
Higgs Boson Blues
Jesus of the Moon
I Need You
Waiting for You
Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
The Mercy Seat
(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?
The Weeping Song
Into My Arms
Push the Sky Away
And No More Shall We Part
Palaces of Montezuma
Man in the Moon
Stranger Than Kindness
God is in the House
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.