By Andrew Burton
Nick Cave’s 40-year career trajectory is a textbook example of a rock star aging gracefully. Instead of resting on his laurels or continuing to make some rehashed version of Prayers on Fire ad infinitum, Cave and his group The Bad Seeds have undergone consistent evolution over the course of their fifteen studio albums. Beginning as a menacing gothic post-punk outfit, they eventually morphed into an equally menacing blues (not blooze) rock band, then into a piano/choral/gospel inspired art rock band, then back to a skuzzy (albeit self-aware) punk band. Now they sound like Prince. Deal with it. Cave’s far too smart to dig himself into the hole of an ex-punk forty-something that still screams “RELEASE THE BATS” like it’s 1982 (not unlike the strategy many of his peers have adopted).
Around 8:30, after a five-song opening set by singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, the band took the stage and opened with the first track off their newest album Push the Sky Away, “We No Who U R” (no, not the Ke$ha song). Four more songs off their latest release followed, most notably the single “Jubilee Street,” which incited the most passionate audience response. Due to the somber nature of their latest record, the band (particularly Cave) acted more restrained than usual, opting for a more cool and mystifying approach to their presentation. A string section and a local school choir accompanied them, something the Bad Seeds of yesteryear would never have dreamed of incorporating. However, as the songs went on, something was definitely building.
Immediately after the climactic ending of “Higgs Boson Blues,” Cave shrieked: “I WANNA TELL YOU ABOUT A GIRL” and the band launched into an hour-or-so of classic Bad Seeds material. This was the release Massey Hall had been waiting for; Cave unleashed on the audience. He is in many ways the accumulation of the archetypal rock frontman (à la Jagger, Morrison, Iggy): mysterious, intriguing, wild, and overtly masculine. There wasn’t a single girl in the front row he didn’t hit on. In 2013, having a routine that consists almost entirely of pelvic thrusts could be seen as a parody, but Cave is such a natural that you are forced to believe him. He left the entire hall mesmerized at his every move. “Stagger Lee,” the final song of the set was a definite personal highlight; a re-write of a traditional murder ballad turned into a rattling death march.
Although not the focal point, Cave’s rotating cast of Bad Seeds are essential to the performance. This is especially true with regards to his foil, multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, who takes on the role previously filled by longtime collaborator Mick Harvey and Einstrüzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld. The two play off each other in a traditional yin and yang fashion; Cave being the unrestrained maniac while Ellis is the collected voice of reason. At one point Ellis even attempted to conduct the string players. All of the members seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, a rarity for forty/fifty-year old rockers.
As I left Massey Hall, I got an invite to a party that was happening a few streets down at a Goth venue called The Batcave. I chose not to grace the venue with my presence, but I read later that Cave used to frequent a London club of the same name when he was in his twenties. This is a very different Cave from the one on stage tonight. As exemplified by the dynamic shift between the material off the group’s newest album to older showstoppers, they still manages to rock, albeit in a more age-appropriate fashion. I could only hope to be as cool as him at 55.