As the moody organ and light cymbal taps of “Push the Sky Away’’ helped draw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ concert to a close Saturday night, a striking image played out at the Boch Center Wang Theatre. A crowd stood onstage, with their backs to the audience, facing the singer, who was perched above them on his piano bench looking for all the world like a doomsaying preacher tending to his flock. It was the subtext that had been running through the previous two hours and 20 minutes, brought to the fore.
Often, intense exploration of dark themes is used for catharsis. Not with Cave. There was no purgative sorrow, just grim resignation. In “Skeleton Tree’’ (which offered a warm embrace, if not a wholly comforting one), the slow galumphing of “Jesus Alone,’’ and others, he repeatedly coaxed the audience through dark places without necessarily intending to guide anyone back out. Plenty of songs were biblically ominous, with the gale-force “Tupelo’’ intoning “The Beast it cometh’’ and the horror-lounge “Red Right Hand’’ spitting out fireless brimstone.
Flinging his body and swaying like a true believer, Cave was a physical performer, elegant and sinister like Hades’s maître d’. Even confined to a stool while the sepulchral piano chords of opener “Anthrocene’’ played, he remained animated, leaning forward as if in confidence of some ominous secret, with his hands grasping at the air. And he sang with a baritone, wobbly not with weakness or uncertainty but with the weight of someone who’s seen things he dares not speak of but feels compelled to warn about.
Nonetheless, maybe the most important moment of the concert came three songs in, during “Magneto,’’ when a particularly gabby pocket of the audience made itself known. “Can I sing?,’’ asked Cave to cheers, following up with a self-deprecating “I've forgotten the [expletive] words.’’ That and a handful of similarly good-natured asides were crucial, showing a wry sense of humor without puncturing the spell.
Even after the interruption, Cave had no trouble slipping back into the foreboding haze of “Higgs Boson Blues.’’ The primal sexual frustration of “From Her to Eternity’’ was even more intense, swirling to cacophony but still pounding forward. Warren Ellis’s fuzzily ringing guitar, played in a 4½-bar loop, gave “Jubilee Street’’ a hypnotic and disorienting repetition.
Two songs played against type. With Cave on piano backed only by bass, “Into My Arms’’ was a tender love song that raged against the dark. And Danish singer Else Torp appeared on video to duet on “Distant Sky.’’ It was the most unambiguously optimistic song of the night, and it was largely performed by a woman who wasn't there.
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
At Boch Center Wang Theatre, June 10Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.