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Nick Cave Traces Grief And Catharsis At Brooklyn Show

When Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released their monumental, heart-shattering album Skeleton Tree last year, it was hard to imagine them ever taking it out on the road. Though many of the songs dated further back, the album had become defined by the tragic death of Cave’s teenage son the preceding year. It was impossible to hear Skeleton Tree’s hazy, engulfing spectrum of grays and anguish, or to watch its accompanying film One More Time With Feeling, and shake the long shadow of Arthur Cave’s passing — and, especially considering the release of a career retrospective earlier this month, it seemed equally impossible that Cave would opt to revisit this grief as the focal point of his show each night.

From the earliest moments of their set at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre on Saturday night, however, Skeleton Tree dominated and shaped the night. From the pre-set music (a sort of extended alteration of the high, piercing whine of album standout “Jesus Alone”) to its opening triptych of Skeleton Tree’s three darkest songs to the moving elegy of set-closing pair “Distant Sky” and the title track, the new material was the framework for a perfectly constructed set, one that took you back and forth through different directions of Cave’s long and layered career, one that allowed him to show every facet of himself as a performer, reminding us once more just how rare and complicated an artist he is.

A Nick Cave show is often a mixture of raw, naked emotion and performative dark magic. This was no different. In the fractured chorus of “Jesus Alone” (“With my voice/ I am calling you,” Cave sings), his voice actually seemed like it was breaking, a tremor in his delivery as if he was on the verge of tears. Later, Cave was similarly vulnerable when he sat on a stool and led the band through a moving rendition of another Skeleton Tree standout, “I Need You.” These were contrasted with moments of exorcism and foreboding, like the haunting ritual of “From Her To Eternity” or the desolate mystery of “Tupelo” or the unnerving spiral of “The Mercy Seat.” These polarities fed into each other — the exposed moments of hurt healed by the intense outbursts of older material, while those unhinged moments in turn underlined the gravity and humanity of the Cave’s newest songs.

Cave’s reputation as a performer is well-earned — he’s one of those musicians who has an undefinable presence as soon as he walks onstage, the kind of performer who can be whispering to the front row and have an entire theatre rapt with attention. Given that, the band rarely needs any affectations to help them out, but their sparing use of imagery on a screen behind them added atmosphere at key points during the set. “Tupelo” felt more akin to the Skeleton Tree portions of the set thanks to its backdrop of palm trees in heavy, stark black and white, being whipped back and forth as if by hurricane or tornado; it took stereotypically pleasant images and inverted them into foreign, convulsing shapes, like haunting abstract paintings coming to life. Similarly, “Girl In Amber” became more impactful for the simple sadness and beauty of its video: a steady shot of Cave’s wife slowly walking away from the camera and towards the sea as he faced the crowd, his back turned to her. Who knows how intentional it was; in the context of the show, it was a subtle reminder of One More Time With Feeling and the themes and events that shaped this.

But within all of it, Cave could still find himself. He thanked the crowd repeatedly, and his dry sense of humor was still intact. “You must be fucking joking,” he quipped to an audience member who handed him what looked like a mannequin’s right hand during Bad Seeds classic “Red Right Hand,” but then he gamely carried the thing around, incorporating it into his performance of the track. There were non-sequiturs, too, like this surprising shoutout: “This is Flatbush. Flatbush Zombies, they’re fucking awesome.”

Anyone who’s seen him knows that, without any overarching context like the one with Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave gives a lot as a performer. One thing that was striking about the Kings Theatre show was how much he seemed to receive back from the audience. His fans are fervent, but there’s something so enigmatic and inscrutable about him where you’d think he wouldn’t necessarily feed off the cheers and all that like another performer. Yet throughout the show, Cave was on the lip of the stage as he always was, leaning forth and holding hands with audience members, staring right in their eyes and singing to them while the rest of the cavernous room looked on. They were little moments of intense connection, beyond the functionality or stunt it’d play as in most shows. It was like each time Cave went into one of these moments, he emerged with new power to present to the rest of us.

What that resulted in was climactic moments like “Jubilee Street.” A word about this song: Cave was in his mid-50s when it came out, on an album that came more than thirty years into his career. And people greet it the way they do early hits at other band’s shows. It speaks to his unique career, and the unique devotion of his fans, and his unique talent, to be writing some of his best material that far down the line. It also speaks to what a truly overwhelming experience it is to see this song live. Now thoroughly road-tested, “Jubilee Street” has an inevitable pull to it, subtly growing faster and faster by the moment, meditations unspooling towards revelations and then towards Cave’s final, roaring declarations: “I’m vibrating/ I’m transforming/ Look at me now!”

In reality, the new Bad Seeds show is constructed in a way that recalls a main takeaway from One More Time With Feeling and Skeleton Tree — life is not a neat narrative, with closure. You circle back on things over and over. And over the course of the Kings Theatre show, that moment of transformation in “Jubilee Street” had to come repeatedly, to answer and rebuke all the darker corners Cave unleashed.

It all culminated in what was, frankly, one of the most stunning things I’ve ever witnessed at a show. When it came time to close the show with “Push The Sky Away” — a song that is somehow equal parts funereal, mortal, and defiant — Cave climbed into the pit and steadily walked through the crowd, until he was about ten feet in front of me, standing on a seat and surrounded by a tight throng of people with arms outstretched towards him. The song is barely above a fragile, considered whisper; it’s a strikingly intimate way to close a show, submerging himself amongst the crowd and drawing a whole theatre’s attention to this one focal point, this one last flicker before the Bad Seeds disappeared for the night.

One woman nearby ran across some kind of barricade, moving over and past others, to get close and film Cave on her phone. It’s something I would’ve expected to go wrong — an artist giving that honest and broken of a performance confronted with the little iPhone light. Instead, Cave centered his attention on her, grasping her hand across multiple seats and singing the rest of the song directly to her. I couldn’t read the look in his eyes. It was almost like as he was singing that final refrain — “You gotta just keep on pushing/ And keep on pushing/ And push the sky away” — she was giving him some look back that allowed him to believe the words as he delivered them. Soon, the song was over, and Cave returned to the stage and the show had ended.

I thought back to something Cave had said earlier. “It feels very good to be on tour…I never thought I’d say that,” he said, both earnest and deadpan. Who can say where this man is in life right now, and it’d be foolish to try to guess his thoughts. But as the crowd filtered out of Kings Theatre, it was easy to think, or at least to hope, that he got some fraction of the catharsis he gave us that night, too.