I got home from the first of mustache-on-a-wire Nick Cave's two performances at the 9:30 Club this week to find an e-mail message from a publicist at his label saying the interview we'd booked for the following morning was canceled. (I felt only a little better when I heard he'd canceled on Post Rock's David Malitz, too.) The show had put me in a good mood that even that unwelcome news couldn't spoil. In 250 words or, well, slightly more: Nick Cave, the Australian punk-turned-literary death-rocker, is among the greatest frontmen in rock and roll. Hyperbole? Nope, check the math: You add the feral swagger of Iggy Pop to the cabaret poise of David Bowie, then factor in the shameless mustache of — that guy from Gogol Bordello, maybe? What about that mustache?
Doubtless it’s important: In his clean-shaven incarnation, Cave was writing tender piano ballads like “Love Letter” and “Into My Arms,” the only two opportunities to relax in his otherwise amphetamine-paced 18-song exorcism at the 9:30 Club Sunday night. But the Primary Source Document of the ‘Stache Era is this year’s Dig!!! Lazurus Dig!!!, one of those rare records that broadens a long-lived artist’s cult while alienating none of the true believers. But mostly, the disc justifies its six titular exclamation point by just rocking like hell — or so you thought, until you heard the seven-piece incarnation of the Bad Seeds up the ante on the songs for the stage, detonating them with sternum-rattling force.
Cave slunk onstage to the doomsday churn of “Night of the Lotus Eaters,” chanting the tracks’s refrain (“Get ready to shield yourself!”) and discarding the verses entirely. A gaunt spectre in gray pinstripes, he strapped on a guitar as the band slammed into Dig!!!’s title track, and the show was off like a cannonball. A string of lightbulbs framed the stage like a dressing-room mirror, emphasizing the theatrical-beyond-any-concern-of-parody nature of Cave’s preening, pointing, hand-squeezing stage manner. He even signed books for fans between songs.
The sold-out crowd welcomed vigorous concert staples like “The Weeping Song” and “Deanna” with fond expectation, and “The Mercy Seat” — already a key track in Cave’s thick songbook when his hero, Johnny Cash, covered it, pushing its stock even higher — was an apocalyptic showstopper, driven by the electric squall of Warren Ellis’s violin.
"It ain't that great," Cave demurred when a fan shouted for him to remove his clothes. But we'll take 110 minutes of his soul over a flash of skin anytime.
A version of this review appears in today's paper of Record.
NIGHT TWO was marginally less awesome, but still one of the best gigs I've seen this year. I'm not sure why Cave couldn't get through "God Is in the House," which he stopped and started three times before finally abandoning the tune to reprise "Love Letter" from the prior night. Or why he announced -- but did not play -- "The Ship Song" during the encore portion of the set both nights. But I was plenty grateful for what we got.
The Setlist - Sunday, October 5, 2008
01 Night of the Lotus Eaters 02 Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! 03 Tupelo 04 The Weeping Song 05 Red Right Hand 06 Midnight Man 07 Love Letter 08 Hold on to Yourself 09 Moonland 10 The Mercy Seat 11 Deanna 12 Hard on for Love 13 We Call Upon the Author 14 Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
15 Into My Arms 16 Get Ready for Love 17 The Lyre of Orpheus 18 Stagger Lee
The Setlist - Monday, October 6, 2008
01 Hold on to Yourself 02 Dig!!! Lazurus Dig!!! 03 Tupelo 04 The Weeping Song 05 Red Right Hand 06 Midnight Man 07 God Is in the House* (aborted) / Love Letter 08 Today's Lesson* 09 The Mercy Seat 10 Moonland 11 Deanna 12 Papa Won't Leave You, Henry 13 More News from Nowhere*
14 Your Funeral, My Trial* 15 Jesus of the Moon* 16 Get Ready for Love 17 Stagger Lee
*not performed the prior night