Has middle age withered Nick Cave? Has it hell. Given some of the reviews of his admittedly patchy recent Nocturama album, you would imagine that the rancorous old Goth has sold his soul to marriage, children, an iMac and a forthcoming South Bank Show special. What's more, his gig for the Tate & Egg Live series puts him and his grand piano centre stage in one of the capital's homes for lofty art, a setting that leaves the audience oddly cowed and is, surely, a bit cold for the howling, blood-and-fire preacher man of Antipodean punk.
But it doesn't take Cave long to prove that he is no mere exhibition piece. It is a show of surprises, first because Cave's band, The Bad Seeds (minus the recently departed Blixa Bargeld), pitch up for what has been billed as a solo gig. As the violinist Warren Ellis appears, flashing his devil's grin at the crowd, it's clear there's mischief ahead, and any worry that it is to be a formal recital is nixed. The opener alone, Nocturama's "Wonderful Life", outstrips its studio version for sonorous tension, Cave growling from behind his piano while The Bad Seeds' backing yearns and stretches with the intuitive intensity for which they have become known.
From then, nothing is as expected. Much of the set is made up of less familiar songs from Cave's back catalogue; the songs that are familiar are boldly reworked. Of the former, "Darker with the Day", from 2001's No More Shall We Part album, is especially majestic, a haunted, haunting hymn, in which Cave wrings great poignancy from hazy thoughts of a lost loved one. There's even one from the vaults in "Wild World", a carnivalesque howler by Cave's first band, The Birthday Party, which has him bashing his piano and barking in deranged, Waitsian, ringmaster style.
Of the better-known numbers, "The Mercy Seat" is pared right down to expose its brilliantly harrowing death-row lyric. The cacophonous "Do You Love Me?" is softened, too, albeit to slithering, snake-in-the-garden effect, while the waltzing "Henry Lee", from Murder Ballads, is sent screeching in the opposite direction, into a fierce punk blues with a reckless violin solo. Indeed, with Cave seated throughout, Ellis is a vital visual foil as well as a great player, whether manhandling his instrument or stamping out the beat, regardless of a nearby lighting fixture's worrying wobble.
It's a precariously brilliant set, by and large. There are quibbles: "Rock of Gibraltar" is weak on record and remains so live, and a full-band version of "Into My Arms" feels cluttered. Otherwise, Cave refuses to let his songs curl up and purr contentedly, instead mauling them to viciously good effect. If this is what middle age is doing to him, bring it on.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play the Apollo Hammersmith, London W6 (0870 606 3400) on 6, 7 & 8 June