“This is our first show of the tour,” Nick Cave said from the stage at New York City’s Kings Theater Friday night (May 26). He waited a sardonic half-beat, then added, “so be forgiving.”
But there wasn’t much to forgive on what was, to be precise, the first night only of the North American leg of his Skeleton Tree tour, which launched this January in Australia: a flubbed lyric once or twice, or a false start that, as Cave jokingly complained to his band’s leader Warren Ellis, sounded “terrible.”
But while mistakes were few, there was sometimes the sense of a band trying to get settled solidly on its feet, trying to find a way of presenting new material that (by both Cave’s and observers’ reckonings) dispenses with his old storytelling mode in favor of raw and direct emotionality.
The last time he was here, in 2014, Cave had just been the focus of an almost playfully backward-looking documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth, which pointedly observed him at home as a happy family man. Things are different now. Another recent Cave movie, Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling, watched as the songwriter struggled to complete his latest album immediately after the shocking death of one of his two teenage sons.
The result, last fall’s anguished Skeleton Tree, is a difficult album to sit through. But Cave has told interviewers that he wants the concerts to go the other direction — to be a communal, uplifting experience instead of a public enactment of grief. And for at least part of the crowd, it clearly was that: The first several rows of seats had been taken out of Kings to make standing room, and at various points Cave worked those front rows in a subtly new way. Typically, he might play the fire-and-brimstone preacher, leaning out over fans to electrify them; here, the persona was softer. When he wanted their support, Cave would wave his hands as if gathering small animals, summoning the upthrust arms of his throng and connecting in a more personal way than in the past. Yes, he would still terrorize them on “Stagger Lee,” the obscene and bloody folk song he reinterpreted on 1996’s Murder Ballads. But theatrics were not the evening’s main thrust.
Well over half the set list was drawn from Skeleton Tree and 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Among the most potent of the new songs was “Jesus Alone,” whose lyrics, written before Cave’s son’s death, foreshadowed it in an unnerving way. Here, lighting designers made their best use of the backdrop: When, in the refrain, Cave murmured “with my voice/I am calling/you,” a posterized video image of his face slowly faded in and then out again. Paired with the pained siren-like figure played by Ellis on synth, the effect was eerie.
Elsewhere, on the similarly prescient “Girl in Amber,” the video backdrop showed a woman (presumably Cave’s wife Susie Bick) walking across a wintry beach with what remained of an old pavilion sitting offshore. It was like a sad goodbye to Brighton, the English resort town where Cave and his family lived: He recently announced that living there has been too painful, and they would relocate to Los Angeles.
Other of the evening’s ballads connected less strongly with the crowd, like “I Need You” and the Skeleton Tree’s title track. “Push the Sky Away,” which closed the evening, lost much of the solemn potency it had at the Hammersmith Ballroom in 2014 and on record: Buried in the mix beneath the rest of the band, Cave’s vocal sounded less incantatory than weary. As the singer and his Bad Seeds sent fans out into the night, it was clear his relationship to them was changing, and that they were committed to follow. Less clear was what their communions would look like in the future.