Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' new album, Push the Sky Away, pulls back for a moodier, more mystical experience than his recent albums with the Bad Seeds and his stripped-down unit Grinderman. Even as the stage lights cast a menacing shadow of Cave on the walls of the Keswick, towering over the sold-out crowd, the show merely simmered at first, using slow brooders from the new album such as "We Know Who U R," and the love song "Wide Lovely Eyes."
That simmer came to a boil, however, with "Higgs Boson Blues," which sought meaning in the universe from the relationship between Miley Cyrus and particle physics.
Cave is a highly theatrical performer who in some sense always keeps himself at a dramatic remove, never cracking from his metaphysical Man in Black persona. (Though he did wear an open-neck white shirt to go with his dark suit and coal-black hair.)
When someone shouted out how good it was to have him back, Cave drolly asked, "Have we been here before?" then paused before dryly adding, "What a town!" At one point he gave an exaggerated howl and commanded a fan: "Put your . . . iPhone down!"
But as much as Cave keeps his distance, he also needs to connect. Early in the show, he entered the center aisle of the crowd, like a goth praying mantis on the prowl. Shortly after, he asked stagehands to remove chairs where fans were seated in the orchestra pit, and urged everyone to move forward. The energy in the room took off, and the band fed off it.
The show peaked with a furious encore of "Tupelo," a 1985 song that, in typical Cave fashion, uses biblical and mythological imagery to depict the birth of Elvis Presley as an apocalyptic event. He followed it with the quietly commanding title cut from Push the Sky Away, a hortatory self-help song of a sort. In it, he urged listeners to fend off bad luck and trouble by using music as their armor: "Some people say it's just rock-and-roll, oh, but it gets you right down to your soul," he sang. "Keep on pushing it, push the sky away."
Sharon Van Etten opened the show, using her lushly powerful voice in an acoustic setting to sing about the battlefield of love. Like the headliner, she sang in high emotional terms, in one song vowing to stab out her own eyes so as never to see a former lover again.
She went over well enough, but it's not easy to open for a legend. "Nick will be on in a few minutes," she noted, then couldn't help sharing with the crowd that "the girl in the princess dress" in the front row greeted that news with a "yes!"
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.