Sitting in a movie theater watching Mutiny in Heaven, the recently released Birthday Party documentary, it was hard to believe that the maniacal frontman onscreen was the same person who just four days earlier I had seen perform seated behind a grand piano onstage at an elegant theater in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. Indeed, over the course of his 40-some years as a singer, first with the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party then as chieftain of the Bad Seeds, as well as with Grinderman and other side projects, Nick Cave has gone through a transformation from heroin-addicted madman to the kind of respectable sort who wears a suit and doesn’t look out of place in front of a seated audience in an ornate theater.
Accompanied by Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, whose suit could have used a little tailoring especially when juxtaposed against Cave’s sharp-fitting attire, Cave ran through a two-hour set that, while favoring more recent records, hit on a good portion of his career’s repertoire. (Unsurprisingly, there were no Birthday Party tracks.) Some songs like the opening “Girl in Amber” (from 2016’s Skeleton Tree) and “Waiting for You” (from 2019’s Ghosteen) lent themselves easily to Cave’s piano-led approach, but others were not so obvious choices. The raucous “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” (from 1992’s Henry’s Dream), which Cave explained he used to sing to his son at bedtime, lost none of its verve in the sparse arrangement. Similarly, “The Mercy Seat” (from 1988’s Tender Prey) was no less haunting or poignant.
It didn’t take a new arrangement, however, to make “Into My Arms” (from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call) any less achingly beautiful. Indeed, what made this performance riveting was the contrast between delicacy and intensity. Part of Cave’s artistry is his ability to swing easily between extremes, which matches well with his thematic leanings toward light and dark, good and evil. That yin and yang was embodied in two songs from 2013’s Push the Sky Away:: the climatic “Jubilee Street” and the prodding title track, which closed the opening set.
Frequently in introducing songs Cave detailed something of their origins. Before “Black Hair” (also from The Boatman’s Call), he commented that it was simply “a poem put to chords, a mantra.” He also explained that sometimes songs got lost for whatever reason before playing an unreleased song, which those in attendance might have been the first ever to hear besides his Bad Seeds bandmates.
Cave and Greenwood returned for an encore that began with “Brompton Oratory” (another from The Boatman’s Call) and also included Grinderman’s “Palaces of Montezuma.” They ended with “Stranger Than Kindness” (from 1986’s Your Funeral… My Trial). which Cave explained was written by a woman (Anita Lane) briefly in the Bad Seeds and which may have been about him, the irony of him singing it not being lost on him. It might have been the most surprising choice, but like much of what was performed, the song revealed the emotional electricity that runs through his work, however it is performed.