Not to be glum about it, but it made sense that the flags stood at half-mast for the duration of the deep, angry, at times desperate show at the Hollywood Bowl last night. The American flag at stage-right, flaccid. The stage-left Cali flag, dead. For three hours, three artists and their bands conjured sorrow and sadness, wallowed in love, drew on those universal blues chords and those mournful moans to irritate and soothe that place where trains collide head-on, where financial institutions collapse in slow motion, where hurricanes ruin lives, where true love must be realized at the dark end of the street, where the world’s greatest living writer dangles from a noose (in fucking Claremont) while we lesser mortals slog to work, our creativity dulled in the face of genius extinguished, in its place sound-bits of some silly-ass Alaskan lady and her withering grandpa. This week the world fucking sucked, and I for one am really glad that Nick Cave, Chan Marshall and Jason Pierce came in to stanch our wounds and mop up the mess.
Click on the photo for the entire slideshow. All photos by Timothy Norris
Chan Marshall, who is Cat Power, has evolved over the years from a sad lonely girl with quiet songs about despair to a rich, evocative stylist who has found her aesthetic home in Memphis, Tennessee. Backed by a super-tight band that included guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Jim White, Marshall delivered soul music that recalled Aretha at Muscle Shoals, Al Green at Hi, Ann Peebles and Nina Simone.
Her sound is purely American, as evidenced by a crawling, mournful version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Chips Moman and Dan Penn’s classic of Memphis soul, “Dark End of the Street,” a song about forbidden love and the means we'll travel to feed the heart. “Hiding in shadows/Where we don’t belong,” she sang, her voice like chrome sandpapered with steel wool, “Living in darkness/To hide our wrong/You and me/At the dark end of the street.” Marshall played a lot of covers last night, including Moby Grape’s “Naked, If I Want To,” Lee Clayton’s “Silver Stallions,” and the Celia Cruz crooner “Anjelitos Negros.” Wearing Cleopatra eyeliner beneath straight bangs, Marshall wandered the stage with determination, and eventually made her way out into the crowd to testify up close. It was a beautiful set.
Spiritualized delivered their testimonies with more detachment, founder Jason Pierce’s eyes hidden beneath cheesy sunglasses, his feet bolted to the floor, his voice a blunt instrument attempting to convince us that he actually cares about coming together and floating in space. Whether he does or not is up for debate, but he certainly cares (cared?) about bliss, as most songs dwelled on the joy found in the haze of stupor. Pierce has long concentrated on floating. His first band, Spacemen 3, took the Velvet Underground’s drone and fused it with a melodic simplicity to create true beauty. Last night Spiritualized’s mantras were cool, and at times huge (a massive version of “Come Together” closed the night). He loves his repetition — both musical and lyric — and finds meaning in the various ways in which structural loops can snowball. But aside from a few big crescendos, it never totally moved me — probably because he never seemed totally moved.
Nick Cave is a different story, of course. Just watch his arms, the most expressive in rock. As he stomps the stage, skinny legs stuck beneath a sheath of torso, his arms gesticulate like he's got bats for hands, his stringy, combed-back hair dyed with sqiud ink, his classic 'stache a frown upside-down. Holy mother. Hands up, who wants to die?
It was the first time I'd seen Cave in about eight years, and I figured he'd calmed down a little. But fuck, he was as desperate and freakishly frantic as he was in his Birthday Party days, when he raced across the stage with so much evil that you thought there'd be no way that electric human would make it past age 25. But here he was, an ex junkie who made it through his dark days not only intact but determined, an artiste, a novelist, a screenwriter (haven't seen The Proposition? Rent it now) and still one of the most potent preacherman storytellers on Earth.
Last night Cave drew from throughout his twenty-plus year solo career, picking songs from his most recent album with longtime backing band the Bad Seeds, Dig Lazarus Dig! to one from his early classic, The Firstborn is Dead. He played “Tupelo,” joy of joys, his thrilling retelling of Elvis Presley's birth; He played “Red Right Hand,” which he dedicated to Wes Craven, and the world was a deeper, darker place for the next five minutes. He played “The Mercy Seat” and wings nearly sprouted out of my back (rats in paradise! rats in paradise!) as he outlined his situation: “A hooked one in my food/All things either good or ungood/And the mercy seat is waiting/And I think my head is burning.”
The perfect metaphor for Cave's astounding performance, one that beat evil to a pulp with the sheer force of his Bad Seeds, was when an audience member handed the singer a dozen red roses. Cave accepted them while the band raged, then turned around and started beating them on his leg, red petals flying all over the place, a gesture flipped, an offering denied.
It felt like danger. The crowd up front, though perfectly mannered, took on the patina of a mob waiting for some shit to go down. The lights turned red and so did we. Running short on time, Cave skipped the obligatory encore exit and kicked straight into “Hard on for Love.” Cave, who dances like he's riding a horse, barely in control, spit into the microphone: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” over and over, as if trying to convince himself of that truth.
But it was “We Call Upon the Author to Explain,” which he played earlier in his set, that pretty much summed up this shitty week in the wake of writer David Foster Wallace's unfathomable death, a tragic train wreck and an economic collapse. Nick Cave captured the chaos and more. Introducing the song as “A song that contains with it all things,” an outraged Cave tried to make sense:
Rosary clutched in his hand, he died with tubes up his nose
And a cabal of angels with finger cymbals chanted his name in code
We shook our fists at the punishing rain
And we call upon the author to explain
He said everything is messed up around here, everything is banal and jejune
There is a planetary conspiracy against the likes of you and me in this idiot constituency of the moon
Well, he knew exactly who to blame
And we call upon the author to explain