Nick Cave & Warren Ellis turn the Shrine into a temple of catharsis

Nick Cave at the Shrine Auditorium (Photo by Stevo Rood / A Rood Photo)

Rapturous and intense, brutal and beautiful, Nick Cave and his mad cohort Warren Ellis held a spiritual revival at the Shrine Auditorium on Wednesday night.

Indeed, the world has changed since Cave and Ellis penned their album “Carnage” last year, during a spell of cabin fever brought on by the pandemic. Post-personal loss, mid-COVID, pre-WWIII, the duo created a celestial masterpiece that spawned an even brighter stardust when performed live. The stunning 2019 Bad Seeds album “Ghosteen” witnessed Cave contemplating the tragic loss of his son Arthur. It was also an important marker away from his telltale fire and brimstone that pockmarked most of Cave’s output until then. “Ghosteen’s” mournful solace led to the rich gamut of emotions that run through “Carnage,” improbably richer and yet sparser, driven by voices rather than instruments.

Cave has long pilfered the Anglo-religious clamor of clapboard stomp and snake-handler Americana as a main influence. With this tour, Cave sought the riches of the church. Joined by a trio of angels on backing vocals — Wendi Rose, Janet Ramus and T Jae Cole — the biblical spells they cast alongside Cave came on deep and heavenly. Cave led the flock through a temple of catharsis and redemption, loss and letting go. This was gospel for the unsaved, a church service for all multitude of deities ever conjured.

There were those in the crowd who didn’t “get” it. They hadn’t done the pre-show homework and were expecting the typical fever-pitch Cave perspiring through his wool suit. And yet, the act of ceremonial purgation was still omnipresent, but one had to surrender, to let it seep into the bloodstream, rather than defend from its bloody attack. Cave crooned rather than bellowed like a mad preacher, whispered life rather than spit death.

This Cave was a piano man — though in many ways just as confrontational, with solemnity and severity, his cutting lyrics even more inescapable, like glass shards beneath bare feet. These were songs that manned the battlements of grief and hope, story songs, cinematic songs, songs of black humor and white rage, songs of all that ails the human condition.

This was not Bad Seeds big, although Bad Seeds songs accounted for more that half of Wednesday night’s setlist. Absent was the cumulative din of Cave’s usual band of henchmen. This incarnation was intimate and minimalist, often nothing more audible than Cave, his background singers and Ellis plunking out various chiming accompaniments on a minuscule midi controller.

Cave is a master at crafting magic out of two chords, ebbing and flowing, and in Ellis he found the perfect compadre to complete that vision. For most of the show, Ellis sat with a tiny keyboard in his lap, flailing madly while Cave traded between frontman and the grand piano. One could have forgotten that Ellis is indeed a notable violinist, given that the first nine songs were sans. It wasn’t until they took a turn on T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” that Ellis wielded his bow. Ably augmented by Luis Almau, who took turns on bass, drums and keys, the arrangements were sublime and daring in their subtlety, much dependent upon the trio of backing vocalists who provided the foundation upon which the show was built.

The show opened with “Spinning Song” off “Ghosteen,” and its fervent closing mantra of “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you / And I love you, and I love you, and I love you / Peace will come, and peace will come, and peace will come in time / Time will come, and time will come, a time will come for us.” It set up what could be best described as an emotional catharsis some in the crowd weren’t prepared for. Given the thematic and sonic similarities of “Ghosteen” and “Carnage,” along with the Cave’s inability to tour behind the former, it made sense to build the set around the two latest releases.

“Carnage” was particularly stunning, with Cage crooning in his finest baritone over the sublime voices swelling behind him. Given the subject matter, “White Elephant” was a track that perhaps could have used a bit more of Cave’s archetypal rage, and yet, his barbed-wire treatise on white America might have been swallowed hole among the fury. Laid bare by a trip-hop arrangement, the lyrics clamored an ugly truth, with an oddball redemptive turn towards heaven at the end.

“Lavender Fields” saw Cave duet beautifully with Wendy Rose. “Waiting for You” witnessed Ellis wrench aching string bends from his plastic rectangle of circuits and wires, coaxing unlikely organic tones from a piece of cold digital equipment that had never experienced a heartbeat. This was an act of a genius, or the devil.

“I Need You” held a yearning that couldn’t be faked: “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.” “God Is in the House” offered another disturbing photograph of evangelical America, where everything is pristine and white, even if it had to be washed in the blood of others in order to make it that way. It was the perfect precursor to “Hand of God,” which searched in vain for deliverance beneath a stage bathed in red, the lighting cast into shapes evocative of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tales.”

The 21-song set saw two encores, with a completely re-imagined “Henry Lee” off “Murder Ballads” making a welcome appearance. Given a past pithy statement attributed to Cave regarding the Red Hot Chili Peppers, perhaps it was a surprise to some that Flea came out and contributed to “We No Who U R.” Los Angeles’ fave bass thumper played deftly and tastefully throughout the arrangement. And it wouldn’t have been proper for Cave not to bring out at least one Bad Seeds hit. “Into My Arms” is a classic weeper of a love song, full of yearning and adoring.

One came away impressed that Cave could so completely move away from his tried and true, his money-maker, and yet deliver something just as compelling and inspiring, along a different musical avenue. It is proof that he is still coaxing relevance out of a nearly 50-year career that has seen him move from the snotty punk of the Birthday Party, to the post-punk blues of the Bad Seeds, to the metallic scrapings of Grinderman, to the mournful, soulful, important and redemptive artist we see at the present.

Cave and Ellis are in the midst of a 20-date North American tour that sees them finish in Montréal on April 3.

Setlist: Spinning Song, Bright Horses, Night Raid, Carnage, White Elephant, Ghosteen, Lavender Fields, Waiting for You, I Need You, Cosmic Dancer (T. Rex cover), God Is in the House, Hand of God, Shattered Ground, Galleon Ship, Leviathan, Balcony Man. Encore: Hollywood, Henry Lee. Encore 2: We No Who U R, Into My Arms, Ghosteen Speaks.

Photo by Stevo Rood / ARood Photo