The storied career of Nick Cave has followed a rare type of auteurist trajectory. With a style forged in the primordial punk-blues swamp of The Birthday Party in the early 1980s, and honed with The Bad Seeds and Grinderman since, Cave has played the doomsday preacher, the weary balladeer, the lecherous garage-rocker and the experimental boundary-pusher with aplomb. His ceaseless quest for personal reinvention has yielded one of the most remarkable bodies of work in contemporary songwriting, right up through last year’s eerie and impressionistic Skeleton Tree. Saturday night (June 10) at the Wang Theatre in Boston, those many sides of Nick Cave past and present converged to remind a sold-out crowd that one of the era’s great songwriters is also among its finest performers.
Cave began the show seated at center stage, a music stand to his side, with the implication of something hushed and intimate. Skeleton Tree, completed in the wake of the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, is a record inextricably linked with grief, and how that might impact its subsequent tour was anyone’s guess. But while the setlist did traverse nearly all of the record’s haunting landscape, an evening of solemnity this was not. A moody (and seated) “Anthrocene” opened, but Cave was holding court in the center of the orchestra pit, grasping hands and trading intense stares with his devotees, by the third song.
A sense of connection and catharsis dominated the show, particularly amid the new songs and cuts from 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Companion pieces of a sort, both records resonate lyrically and sonically with disillusionment and dread. On stage, however, a song like Push the Sky Away’s sprawling slow-burn “Higgs Boson Blues” transformed into something more akin to a communal hymn than a lonely fever dream. Even “I Need You,” one of Skeleton Tree’s most plainspokenly heartrending moments, took on a liberating tone. Cave performed each song not so much for his audience as with them, stalking both stage and seats with restless, brimming energy.
That catharsis also extended beyond the emotionally heavy material to the old-fashioned menacing rockers. Cave’s declaration to “tell you about a girl” signaled the ominous stomp of “From Her to Eternity,” a still-evocative stalker horror story from The Bad Seeds’ 1984 debut. The apocalyptic churn of “Tupelo” and the classic death row lament “The Mercy Seat” sounded as urgent and fiery as ever, with The Bad Seeds’ current six-man cast conjuring a primal fury. Such songs also served to contrast what a beautifully subdued ensemble they were on the quieter numbers that demanded it.
After well over two consistently arresting hours on stage, it was the conclusion of the night’s encore that truly drove home the multifaceted powers of Cave and his associates. “Stagger Lee,” their gleefully profane take on the old American standard, was the penultimate selection, and had Cave pulling audience members on stage to dance as he carefully enunciated each and every “motherfucker” with the band riding a sleazy groove that exploded into hellish racket behind him. The stage invasion kept streaming as they closed with the minimalist pulse of Push the Sky Away’s defiant title track, the crowd eventually obscuring the band entirely as Cave stood atop a piano bench, arms outstretched. That image, of the barrier between audience and performer fully broken down, was a fitting culmination to the night.