Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Crystal Ballroom; Portland, OR

It took four songs for Nick Cave to acknowledge the repeated calls of “Happy birthday.” Appearing with the Bad Seeds for the first time on a North American tour since 2003, Cave showed up ready to kill. Up to that point, Cave and his six-piece band had barreled their way through three cuts off their newest album, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, as well as the Bad Seed classic “Tupelo.” “Yeah, that’s right, it’s my motherfucking birthday,” Cave, who turned 51 that evening, said. “I’m disgracefully old.” The band then launched into “The Weeping Song,” where Cave did double vocal duty to cover for the departed Blixa Bargeld.

I decided to get to the show early and settle into a good spot up front. I had seen Nick Cave many times before, and I knew that his style of visceral and confrontational rock is best experienced up close. Cave’s fans are hardcore. Black clothes aside, I saw more than few fans with Cave-related tattoos. They were ready to see their idol, who despite touring and recording non-stop, has not played on these shores with the Bad Seeds in a long time.

At least he did not disappoint. Dressed in a black suit, receding hairline, and porn mustache dyed ebony, Cave pulled his microphone stand to the edge of the stage and immediately burst into kicks and contortions over the drone of “Night of the Lotus Eaters.” With his shirt unbuttoned and a necklace of beads jangling against his hairless chest, Cave prowled the stage, reaching and pointing to the audience. The crowd pressed forward to touch Cave, a facsimile of the Christ that haunts his songwriting.

Cave is such a dynamic performer that it is easy to ignore the six other members of the band. Longtime partner Mick Harvey and Dirty Three virtuoso Warren Ellis led the tight Bad Seeds, a perfect complement to Cave’s ragged fury. After a period of writing stately ballads and ghostly love songs, this incarnation of the Bad Seeds did nothing short of piss fire. After last year’s garage rock side project Grinderman, Cave has been revisited by the anger and flames that occupied his earliest records. Before Grinderman, Cave either performed without an instrument or played the occasional piano. But for a few songs at this show, Cave played the guitar. No virtuoso by any means, Cave provided blasts of noise that filled in the atmospheric web created by the Bad Seeds.

The 19-song set featured a mix from Lazarus and the “hits” Cave aficionados would expect. But the newfound aggression that seethes in the latest tracks found its way into the older tunes. “The Mercy Seat,” always a slow-burner, crackled with terror, and the obligatory “Red Right Hand” sounded fresher than it has in years. Cave’s intensity hit a critical peak on “We Call Upon the Author,” where he paced the stage admonishing the audience about the end of the times. Though cliché, the mad preacher image is apropos.

Throughout the show, Cave came perilously close to the audience. At one point, a dude, obviously tripping, came flailing up to the front. He bumped off the people around me like a mad hatter, receiving blows and pushes from the fairly restrained group. As the song ended, Cave leapt forward, balancing on the rail between the stage and the crowd to signal security to get the man out. When the man refused to go, Cave tried to reason with him, offering him a seat (“a stool” or “a toadstool”) for him to sit upon on the side of the stage. When security finally dragged the guy out, Cave graciously leaned over the stage and patted him on the chest.

After putting an end to a blistering first set with “No News From Nowhere,” the Bad Seeds began the encore with “Love Letter.” This was the first actual ballad of the evening, and as Cave took his place behind the piano, the band reverted back to the torch-song reveries that filled albums like The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. But the respite was brief, and Cave soon asked the audience to join the call-and-response of “The Lyre of Orpheus.” At this moment, Cave reached into the audience (and I know I sound like a douche bag) and grasped my hand, intertwining his fingers with mine. The people around me seemed to love it as much as I did. They patted me on the back and shook my hand. The energy exchange for me was intense, but what an ego Cave must have with throngs of people just wanting to touch him.

The Bad Seeds finished off the show with the notorious “Stagger Lee” (it features one of rock’s most cringe-worthy lyrics -- see the video below). As Cave sang of rape and murder, the band thundered around him. And then the song ended. Cave, drenched in sweat, thanked the audience and rushed off the stage to celebrate his motherfucking birthday on his own terms.


Photo: [Nick Cave's MySpace]

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