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Nick Cave (seen here at SXSW in Austin, Tex.) with the Bad Seeds cemented his status as one of rock’s most explosive live acts.Jack Plunkett/The Associated Press

It's weird when musicians jimmy in shout-outs to the town they're rolling through. The pandering is embarrassing, as if an audience should be won over by a performer exhibiting a basic comprehension of where he is on a given evening. Thursday night at the Sony Centre, Australian gloom-rocker Nick Cave rejigged the lyrics to the cheeky ballad God is in the House, to reference a "crackhead" mayor – word of Hogtown's home-brewed scandal having no doubt reached Cave's misty seaside home of Brighton & Hove, and likely even trickling into the inky realm of sin, sorrow and half-hearted redemption where his songs unfold.

Sure, it's just a version of an arena rock band dopily playing to the locals' sense of civic pride by saying something like, "I was driving down … Route 401!" But laughing at the shame that has fallen over Toronto is cathartic. And if there's one thing Nick Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds, can nail some 30 years into their career, it's catharsis.

Cave's songs are studies in tension and relief. The characters that teem around the edges of his ambitiously literate story-songs – outlaws, lovelorn troubadours, stillborn babies, knocked-up sex workers and their penitent Johns – lurk in the shadows of self-reproach. They scramble to liberate themselves from their existential agony, whether through reconciling with a spurned lover (Into My Arms, The Ship Song) or discharging a volley of gunshots (the barn-burner version of Stagger Lee, which turns the roving desperado into a slobbering, psychotic perv).

The Bad Seeds fit these throbbing narratives with chugging, dynamic scores. On Jubilee Street, from last year's Push the Sky Away, the band careers into a sweaty crescendo, all wailing guitars, smashed keys and shredded violins, reaching its peak as the song's central character delivers himself from his pained revenge fantasies.

Even from the vertiginous altitudes of the Sony Centre's nosebleeds, it's thrilling to watch. Cave boogies around the stage, sweating through his well-tailored black suit, snapping the microphone cord like an S&M slave-master cracking a whip. During the blockbuster numbers, Cave trod deep into the crowd, nimbly traversing the tops of the theatre's seats like a Beatle-booted mountain goat. Every movement feels like a bid to assure his status as one of rock's finest live acts.

Since emerging in the late 1970s as front man of the hot-blooded Australian punk act the Birthday Party, Cave has shape-shifted effortlessly. Now, he's a singer-songwriter dutifully scaling the pantheon of his heroes: Johnny Cash's "Man In Black" crossbred with Leonard Cohen's cartoonishly dapper ladykiller poet persona.

Who has aged, well, if not as gracefully – Cave's potbelly and dyed swoop of black hair make him look, at 56, like a used-car salesman in a Nick Cave costume – then as skillfully? Who has proved as able to swing between styles, attitudes and postures without it feeling like a trite, career-saving "reinvention"? Among contemporaries, only PJ Harvey comes close. (The two dated briefly in the 1990s, though not long enough to breed some sort of super-sullen songwriter spawn: a slouching mongrel of spiny art deco cheekbones and puckered lips.)

On his records, Cave's a thoughtful, practically scholarly, practitioner of songcraft. But live, all that carefully managed junkie-poet stuff recedes and he's foremost a performer. Like a spooky raconteur who has his audience clutching at every syllable, every twitch and pouty scowl, Cave steers the crowd through that dizzying emotional warren of mounting tension, climactic release, and a rousing double encore.

Playing the role of the rock star, Cave bursts through this bookish sincerity, swelling into an outsized caricature of himself, his long shadow thrashing hypnotically against the auditorium's walls.