“This is a dark song.” Hearing those words from Nick Cave is like having a dentist with a rusty, old drill tell you, “This is gonna hurt.” The dark lord of Australian music gave that warning before “Jubilee Street,” the last of three new songs that opened Wednesday night’s NPR Music showcase just as the sun set over the Stubb’s outdoor stage in Austin. It was also Cave’s kick-off show on a U.S. tour with a slightly made-over lineup of his powerhouse band the Bad Seeds.
Longtime Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey’s absence was felt in the hour-long performance, as it is on the more spacious new album “Push the Sky Away.” However, Ed Kuepper of legendary Aussie punk band the Saints filled in with gusto, while violinist/guitarist Warren Ellis (Dirty Three) played a subtly pivotal role. The show opened with the “Higgs Boson Blues,” a creepy, freaky highlight of the new record, followed by the slower and dimly elegant “Wide Lovely Eyes.” Cave wasn’t kidding about “Jubilee Street,” either, which ended in a chaotic fury.
Spending most of the set with microphone in hand instead of at the piano, the 55-year-old heavy howler acted a bit put off by the usual SXSW surroundings. He snidely motioned for photographers crammed in front of the stage to leave after the first song , and he sang out to the picture-taking crowd about putting away “your crappy phone.”
However, Cave still displayed his uncanny showmanship throughout the performance, animatedly raising “Red Right Hand” and dramatically during “Mercy Seat,” which was reeimagined into more of an acoustic dirge. He also sternly emphasized the montage of lewd lyrics in “Stagger Lee” – probably not one the NPR folks will broadcast on the radio, but you can bet the folks lucky enough to have gotten into the show will be telling folks back home about it.
NPR did webcast Cave's set and the bands that followed (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alt-J, Cafe Tacuba and Youth Lagoon). Look for it archived online in the coming days at www.npr.org/sxsw. See the rest of our own SXSW coverage at www.startribune.com/sxsw.