Nick Cave sang of love, murder and Miley Cyrus.
He told gruesome morbid tales and gorgeous love stories. The 55-year-old Australian vocalist conjured the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Jack the Ripper and Stagger Lee.
He did so with menace and warmth, style and charisma, pain and anguish, pride and poignancy. He was as punk as Iggy Pop and as poetic as Leonard Cohen.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' show on Tuesday at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco was pure stark raving genius -- a deeply moving and encompassing performance that was a rare joy to behold.
The band performed 18 songs, each of which was an arresting experience.
Cave, of course, is usually great in concert. This time around, however, he was even better than usual. And the reason why is that he's even touring in support of his finest album in many years -- "Push the Sky Away," the Bad Seeds' 15th studio effort.
"Push the Sky Away" is an early favorite for best album of 2013, and this show underscored the strength of the new material. Cave sang six of the album's nine songs on Tuesday, each of which was as good, if not better, than any of the longtime fan favorites performed. Yes, that includes such career highlights as "Stagger Lee" and, even, "Mercy Seat."
Cave opened the concert with four straight "Push the Sky Away" tracks, kicking things off with the strikingly somber "We No Who U R" and moving through the volcanic "Jubilee Street," the gorgeous "Wide Lovely Eyes" and the far-reaching "Higgs Boson Blues."
He was a magnetic presence, drawing all eyes with his highly theatrical motions, which fall somewhere between Shakespearean and the Harlem Shake. Sometimes he looks like he's riding an invisible surfboard, working hard to balance his weight on top of a wave that only he can see, or perhaps limbering himself up for a limbo contest.
The singer certainly had plenty of competition for our attention. The stage was loaded with people. Besides Cave and his Bad Seeds, there were backup singers, a string section and a youth choir. With the dim lights, it was nearly impossible to get an exact count of how many there were onstage — but it seemed like dozens. Even Cave seemed a bit perplexed by the number, joking that "there are 100s of (singers)" in the youth choir.
The battalion of voices and musicians added greatly to the musical mix. The live version of "Jubilee Street," in particular, hit like a force of nature, one that grew more powerful as the song progressed. It also added might to the epic "Higgs Boson Blues," a song that has to rank among the most unusual in Cave's songbook — and that's really saying something. The lyrics start with Robert Johnson and end with Miley Cyrus, thus, in effect, encompassing the entirety of popular music of the 20th century and beyond. Think that statement's off? Then, go right ahead and try to name some popular musician who doesn't fall between those two distant bookends.
The best new song performed -- and, indeed, the overall finest song of the night -- was "Wide Lovely Eyes." It's an absolutely mesmerizing love ballad, which Cave wrote for his wife (and muse) Susie Bick, who appears nude (in a tasteful fashion) on the cover of "Push the Sky Away." It's stripped-down (no pun intended), with Cave basically singing over a simple, ticking-clock-like rhythm. It's nervous, a bit twitchy, driven by the fear that Cave feels whenever he must say goodbye to his wife, yet it's also charmingly honest and open. It is, to be frank, one of the very best things Cave has ever written.
Moving away from the new album, Cave flipped through the many moods to be found in his impressive songbook. The version of "From Her to Eternity" (the title track to Cave and the Bad Seeds' 1984 debut) was wildly chaotic, crashing like a drawer full of kitchen utensils hitting the kitchen floor, while "Red Right Hand" (from 1994's "Let Love In") was slinky and seductive.
Cave closed the main set with arguably his best-known murder ballad, the freaky, gruesome tale of "Stagger Lee," then returned for a three-song encore of "Tupelo," "The Ship Song" and the title track to "Push the Sky Away." Then the crowd was left to try and catch its breath.
Good luck with that.
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