Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds took the stage in Toronto last night (May 31) with their work cut out for them. Promoting both a greatest hits package and last year's Skeleton Tree, the band had to reconcile the former's bombast with the latter's sobriety. Only an accomplished pack of musicians could make a diffuse song like "Anthrocene" reach the back walls of historic Massey Hall, but Cave and company didn't just pull off that feat; they did so as their opening number, prepping the audience for a performance that balanced restrained introspection and full-on sonic assault in equal measure.
This should come as little surprise to anyone who's seen the Bad Seeds in action. Despite extensive lineup changes, the group has always emphasized the explosive, sometimes violent aspects of Cave's songwriting. Yet recent shows are as likely to feature children's choirs as they are to contain songs about sex and murder. The Bad Seeds' latest incarnation is adept at atmospheric, nearly ambient playing, thanks in large part to contributions from multi-instrumentalist and Dirty Three member Warren Ellis.
The band demonstrated these capabilities right off the bat. Dressed in uniform tailored suits, the musicians were as still and stately as statues while they expanded upon three Skeleton Tree tracks. While the recorded "Magneto" lacks any kind of rhythm, its live counterpart featured both a beat and more prominent acoustic guitar from George Vjestica. "Jesus Alone" saw Cave shift from composed intonations to anguished wails as the band channelled a churning synthesizer loop and a high, lonesome whistle.
Not every Skeleton Tree track benefited from this treatment. Fuller arrangements sapped the vulnerability that made "I Need You" so affecting, while the already weak "Rings of Saturn" suffered from its leadoff spot in the encore. For the most part, though, the Bad Seeds understood how to flesh out these spare, sombre songs without sacrificing their appeal. "Distant Sky" was a particular highlight, keeping Else Torp's vocal part before transitioning into gorgeous, rustic interplay between Cave's piano and Ellis's violin.
These tranquil moments often set the scene for noisier, more aggressive material. After three slow songs, "Higgs Boson Blues" built itself from Ellis's solo tenor guitar strumming to a heavy outburst at the mention of "a hundred black babies" fleeing Lucifer's "genocidal jaw." "Jubilee Street" climaxed in a barnstorming stomp similar to "Jangling Jack" or "Albert Goes West," with backing vocals that sounded like a soccer stadium chant. The sinister "Red Right Hand" seemed to be played straight until the band broke into sudden peals of noise that ended just as quickly as they began.
Throughout the night, Cave enhanced these eruptions with his masterful showmanship. Most songs saw him preening across the stage, and his low croon occasionally gave way to the spit and snarl of a rabid dog. He often hunched over his audience, pawing at appreciative concertgoers until it looked like they would pull him headlong into the crowd.
Brandishing a concertgoer's hand fan, he strutted like a burlesque performer during the cartoonishly savage standard "Stagger Lee." On "From Her to Eternity," he lured the crowd with a near-whisper before unleashing a shrill shriek as Ellis, resembling a deranged old-timey prospector, pressed his violin into his hip and used his other hand to thrash at his own leg.
Cave's knack for performance has allowed him to draw upon Gothic Americana, Berlin cabaret and 21st century cosmic malaise, all while retaining his own distinct persona. If the mass of fans that flocked around him during closer "Push the Sky Away" — in which he walked into the crowd and sung from the middle of the orchestra seats — are any indication, that voice remains as relevant as ever.