The lyrical scenes depicted during Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' typically overwhelming set of rock 'n' roll Saturday night flooded the newly resurrected United Artists Theater in downtown Los Angeles with the kind of drama for which the space was first intended.
Within the neo-gothic walls of the old movie palace, rechristened the Theatre at Ace Hotel this year, Cave presented epic story-songs while his six-man band built dungeons of perfectly engineered sound. Intense piano pokes and tribal pound drove "From Her to Eternity," about a sad woman living in a flat whose tears flow so freely that they "come splashin' on down, leaking through the cracks," where they're caught in the mouth of an obsessed stalker in the room below.
Cave bellowed, a man tortured by his own heart: "Why the ceiling still shakes!? Why the fixtures turn to serpents and snakes?!"
During "Higgs Boson Blues," a real-life superstar floated dead in a Toluca Lake swimming pool in a song about a war between the devil and blues singer Robert Johnson. In "Tupelo," Cave yowled of a prodigal infant born into the world, its future preordained. "O God help Tupelo!" screamed the gangly Cave in his baritone, delivering a fire-and-brimstone creation myth on the birth of Elvis Presley.
He and his longtime band know their way around myths and tension. They've been exploring both for nearly 30 years. If Cave's not exactly a household name among the mainstream rock set, he's a laureate of the underground, one whose shadow becomes bigger with each passing year.
The singer, pianist, lyricist, novelist and screenwriter is still touring in support of the 2013 album "Push the Sky Away" while also teasing "20,000 Days on Earth," the soon-to-be released documentary on Cave, who at age 56 has become his own archetype.
Following a show the night before at the Shrine Auditorium, he and his black-suited Bad Seeds at the smaller Ace presented a well curated selection of songs from throughout his solo career, one he embarked on after the dissolution of his fiery post-punk band the Birthday Party.
Tilted toward his balladry but dotted with intense exclamation points, his set opened with recent work from "Push the Sky Away": a simmering take on "We Real Cool," followed by the disconcerting "Jubilee Street," about a self-righteous, ruined hypocrite fated to roam his town with "a fetus on a leash."
Throughout 90 minutes, he was a menace hellbent on exploring good and evil, love and hate, a man battling overwhelming desire and insidious demons. He was a cruel-hearted romantic on "Nobody's Baby Now." Filled with regret, his craving for a lost love infecting his very being: "She lives in my blood and skin," he sang. "Her wild feral stare, her dark hair / Her winter lips as cold as stone -- I was her man." As he doted, violinist Warren Ellis soloed.
Cave prowled the Ace's stage, gesticulating wildly, a born performer who in another era might have been a traveling preacher or a snake-oil salesman. During one ballad, he invited a woman up to stand beside him. She cozied up and he comforted her like a prophet while he sang. Elsewhere, he pointed his finger at the balcony, creeping close to the front rows while conveying lyrical confusion on whether he was dead or merely slumbering: "No sleep runs this deep! No sleep runs this deep!"
The Bad Seeds hit their peak during the killing spree in "Stagger Lee," Cave's extrapolation of a classic blues narrative about the real-life St. Louis murder of a man named Billy. With a nearly subharmonic bass line dredging up the blues and drummer Jim Sclavunos hammering his snare in three-shot, gunfire increments, the singer told of bullet holes and infernal battles, creating musical cathedrals as ornate and imposing as the room surrounding him.
As the song drew to a close, the bodies were piled high. But Cave still had one more bullet in his chamber. His Bad Seeds simmering behind, Cave cocked the trigger, and everyone knew how it had to end: "Billy dropped down and slobbered on his head -- and Stag filled him full of lead."
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @lileditCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times