At Earth Hour, the lights went down at Massey Hall, and into the darkness came Nick Cave, the magnetic vampire-man and wilder person’s Leonard Cohen. The members of his band the Bad Seeds plunked sparsely at an organ, tapped lightly at the drum kit and blew a flute. “The tree don’t care what the little bird sings,” sang Cave, all poetry, forehead, shiny black suit and shinier black hair. The song, the lead track off the brilliant new album Push the Sky Away, was tense, dub-like and rising – a scene-setter for the concert of dynamic crash and blues that followed. “We know who you are,” the swaying chorus went, “and we know where you live.” Nobody flinched, and nothing moved an inch.
A night earlier, backstage at one of the many shows happening around the city during Canadian Music Week, a musician was despairing on the state of the blues. I agreed, saying that the last blues album of much consequence was 2010’s I’m New Here, a modern record of words and beautifully frightening moods from the late Gil Scott-Heron. Cave chose to play that album as the warm-up music preceding his Massey show. Listening to it, and then witnessing the performance by Cave and the Bad Seeds which followed, it struck me that, yes, possibly the blues as we know them are dying. But new-style bluesmen and blues women – Cave, Gord Downie, Eddie Vedder, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, Eminem and Mos Def, to name a few – still work and live, and that perhaps that is all that really matters.
The sold-out Massey concert hit its highest crescendo early – Jubilee Street, helped by local strings players (led by Owen Pallett) and a youth choir from Rose Avenue Public School. “A ten-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain,” the low-voiced Cave sang, perfectly descriptive of what was going down, against the moody score behind him. The piece took its time, like a patient villain, and then got awfully big. A standing ovation followed – a bravo moment.
Higgs Boson Blues was a slow-moving question and vibration, about Robert Johnson, Miley Cyrus, Lucifer and killer-grooves, and who got the better of the deals. Cave asked if we could feel his heart beat. Speaking for myself (but I think for others too), I answered in the affirmative. I couldn’t feel my legs beneath me, but, yes, I could feel the heart beat of Cave and his Seeds.
Cave sensibly sent the choir away – “see ya kids, thank you” – for Jack the Ripper, a livid thing from 1992. Deanna, from 1988’s Tender Prey, mashed up post-punk, glam and reedy-organ retro garage-rock. Main-set closer Stagger Lee, a murderous Mississippi folk song concerning a barroom and buckets of blood, stalked potently and feverishly.
A two-song encore included Push the Sky Away, a swaying, organ-drenched anthem about perseverance and keeping one’s limits at arm’s length. Closer Tupelo was crazed and tense, with lines on storms, sandmen and a king born in Mississippi.
Cave, once described as “the bastard offspring of Elvis and Dracula,” was deep into character. Then he left, as the lights came up. The blues live on, preached in a contemporary and very dark way.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds play Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, April 6.