Nick Cave is the master of American mythology
When Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds went into "Stagger Lee" from the 1996 album Murder Ballads, it was an iconic moment of an evening of music in which the band took the tradition of American folk mythology and breathed into it a larger-than-life electricity. Cave brought raging emotional intensity and dynamic outbursts, whispered statements from the devil and the seductions and outrageously compelling swaggering assertions of Stagger Lee himself. He strode well into the seating area on the first tier of the theater, standing on the backs of chairs, supported by fans. He became one of us, while effectively embodying various archetypes and reminding us that we're part of those, too.
Cave is an Australian who has lived in the UK and Berlin, but his music bears all the fingerprints of an imagination fascinated with the kind of blues folklore and mythology most vividly embodied first in the novels and ethnographies of Americans like Zora Neal Hurston and later by those who told the myths of Robert Johnson, Cormac McCarthy with his gritty evocations of American culture and James Ellroy's synthesis of jazz idiom and hardboiled crime fiction. There is a lurid, colorful and endless well of material from which Cave has drawn across his career, and he drew from all of it during his set last night.
Mixing American blues and folk ideas with sea shanties (in songs like "The Weeping Song" and "Mermaids") effectively breathed another dimension into the core of Cave's songwriting. And as a performer, he consistently went to the front of the stage and interacted with the crowd directly, quite often going three rows in to stands and gesturing not just to those immediately around him but to people in the balconies and the upper levels nearby. He was in complete command. No one tried to drag him down or take up his hand and delay him from getting back to the stage.
Few people make the piano a menacing instrument as this band does. Perhaps Diamanda Galas, whose own allegiance to the world of the blues and folk musical traditions is obvious. What she and Cave have done is to take those ideas and those sounds and find the mythological, epic dimensions contained within them. They paint them large with the music and the emotional intensity of the singing.
When Cave went into the seats and stood with the spotlight on him, him encouraging people to come close, it looked like he was ministering to other adherents to the church of rock and roll. It was never more explicit than during the performance of "Tupelo," with its suggested apotheosis of Elvis Presley.
But it wasn't all dark, stormy music, nor darkly tender ballads. Cave took some time out for humor; there's a line in "Higgs Boson Blues" where he name-checks Hannah Montana, and he sang it with a joking sense of confusion.