Nobody explores the thin line between light and darkness as well as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The Australian native and British resident has spent 30 years amassing a rogue’s gallery of killers, creepers and unsavory characters of all types. Yet he’s also capable of stripping away the grime and debauchery to give life to languorous love songs that border on the spiritual. His international band of brigands – including righthand man Warren Ellis and original Bad Seed Barry Adamson – are equally adept at shimmering beauty and hellacious noise, depending on the mood the song requires. That yin/yang contrast, a dichotomy on which Cave and the Seeds have built a successful three-decade career, exploded in full effect for the band’s first taping for Austin City Limits.
With an unusual (for us) stage setup that featured two ramps allowing the stage-stalking Cave to join the crowd, the band arrived to the electronic thrum of “We Real Cool,” one of the singles from his latest LP Push the Sky Away. The brooding amble of “Jubilee Street” seemingly continued the sedate mood, but ramped up the energy of a tent revival in no time for the first of the evening’s standout performances. The quiet dismissed for the moment, the Seeds launched into the explosive “Tupelo,” a twisted take on the mythology surrounding Elvis Presley that had Cave raving like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher fallen from grace and grimly trying to claw his way back.
From then on the dark and the light battled for supremacy. In the former’s corner: the creeping crawl of Cave’s serial killer ode “Red Right Hand” (made infamous in part by its use in The X-Files) and the rock ‘n’ roll savagery of the obsessive love song “From Her to Eternity,” the title track of the first Bad Seeds album. In the latter’s: the religious authority satire “God is in the House” and the unusually straightforward romantic sentiments of “Love Letter,” both keying on Cave’s sensual croon and piano. The sonorous “Mermaids” and the rambling “Higgs Boson Blues,” one of the most discussed tunes on Push the Sky Away, seemed ambivalent toward the balance of good and evil, letting Cave ponder issues of modern technology shaping the inconsistency of memory.
That was apparently all the clemency Cave had left in him, though, as the Seeds launched into “The Mercy Seat,” the murderously powerful first-person account of execution by electric chair that has become the band’s signature song. That was merely a warm-up, however, for “Stagger Lee.” Cave’s aggressively profane version of the century-old folk song pushes the original’s braggadocio into deliberately over-the-top heights of arrogance and violence, and his especially intense performance had the audience howling for blood.
There was no way to top that kind of ferocity, so the band didn’t try, wisely choosing to close the show with the austere beauty of the title track to Push the Sky Away. It was the perfect comedown for the rollercoaster ride of a Bad Seeds performance, moving from devil to angel and all points in between. We can’t wait for you to see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in action on the ACL stage – watch your local listings this fall.