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The recently issued Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds compiles tracks spanning the group's 14-year history and serves as the foundation for this tour. Cave's career, as well as that of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, began in the late '70s in Melbourne, Australia, as members of underground punk band Boys Next Door. Cave and Harvey changed the name of their group to the Birthday Party and moved to London where their harrowing art rock turned them into post-punk cult heroes. In the process, Cave became a poster boy for tousled-black-hair-gothic-cowboy-heroin-addict chic. After the Birthday Party's breakup in late 1983, Cave recruited Harvey along with bassist Barry Adamson and guitarist/vocalist Blixa Bargeld from the equally cult-adored EinstYrzende Neubauten to sire the Bad Seeds. Since then, Cave's grappled with and defeated heroin addiction, written a novel, married, become a father, divorced, and released 12 albums. Along the way, he's finally been acknowledged outside the realm of goths and punks.
At the Warfield, the Bad Seeds casually strolled onstage, each member bedecked in rumpled but fine-tailored sport coats, slacks, dress shirts, and cowboy boots. Bassist Martyn P. Casey's finger-plucked strutting lines and drummer Thomas Wydler's gentle brush thwaps set the swinging opening to "Far From Me," the bittersweet lament from The Boatman's Call. "For you dear, I was born," Cave sang, a lit cigarette pinched between his fingers as he pointed into the crowd, at no one in particular. Violinist Warren Ellis, a recent Bad Seed recruit from the instrumental trio Dirty Three, hunched and built a tense staccato melody that swelled as Cave mused, "Did you ever care for me?/ Were you ever there for me?" Cave looked rigid in a three-piece suit, but his mannerisms -- the way that he stepped forward to the lip of the stage -- gave the sense of betrayal that manifests in the song an almost ironic twist. Cave has studied rock and pop archetypes from Sinatra to Presley. Where Elvis used gesture to manipulate his crowds for his own glory, Cave mimics those exact stances to reflect the sentiment of the song itself.
"Red Right Hand," a bossa nova from 1994's Let Love In, further showcased the group's mastery of dramatic flair. Percussionist Jim Sclavunos' thunderous bass drum and hammered bells punctuated the Latin-based organ line. A rail-thin Cave lunged across the stage. The song itself is a stripped-down story about a run-in with a diabolical character. On record, as live, "Red Right Hand" is remarkable for the way that a smoldering tune can burst into flames of passion and anger, then quickly revert to placidity.
A few songs into the show -- which had benefited from a smooth, dramatic arc -- Cave took the keyboard on "Brompton Oratory." The number builds around a robotic drum machine pattern and the cheesy organ sound of an old Casio keyboard. At first, the keyboard began to cut out. Cave, ever the showman, did his best to mask the problem. But halfway through the song, the microphone stand dropped into an awkward position. Cave had to sing two verses leaning into the keyboard and straining for the mike. Live, Nick Cave works himself into a state of intense concentration. It seemed as though the mike incident had the potential to interrupt that mind-set. It wouldn't have been surprising if the singer had actually enjoyed the moment of breakdown -- a theme that echoes throughout many of his songs.
The band recovered its composure and momentum, locking into an effectively grouped selection of songs. The first pairing of Let Love In's "Do You Love Me?" and the title track demonstrated Cave's growth as a songwriter and the Bad Seeds' tasteful use of dynamics. Conway Savage's legato piano trills and vocal harmonies saturated the layered acoustic and electric guitars. Wydler concocted ominous marching beats, which Sclavunos accented by striking mallets on a large snare drum.
Bargeld, the maestro guitarist of jagged noise strata, had little to do up until reprising his abrasive guitar on "The Mercy Seat" from 1988's Tender Prey. On the earlier Bad Seeds recordings, Bargeld's signature flourishes and eruptions largely characterized the group's sound. However, in recent years, aside from the occasional six-string conniption, his contributions have switched to layering rather than gouging. The advancement echoes Cave's writing: For several years now, the lyricist has refined the art of subtlety. Long ago, the Birthday Party used musical bombast to express violence. Now, the Bad Seeds can imply violence, underscoring it with quietly ominous instrumentation. At the Warfield, Bargeld spent much of his time smoking cigarettes or walking offstage during many of the newer compositions.
Bargeld was front and center for the first encore, singing Kylie Minogue's lines from "Where the Wild Roses Grow," a duet with Cave from the Murder Ballads album. Clowning as they sang to one another, the men sealed the song with a kiss. Cave's sense of drama uses humor as well as darkness; pathos as well as bathos.
After a feverish and swaying "Tupelo," the Bad Seeds closed the set with a revamped version of the perennial blues and soul standard "Stagger Lee." Sclavunos sat in at the drum set, pounding out a solid, heavy Jon Bonham beat while Wydler shook maracas and Casey wrapped slithering bass around the edges. Savage and Harvey punctuated each measure with stomping chords. The original song is one of the most famous American rhythm and blues standards. It tells the tale of a legendary bad man who murders a poker player, then falls at the hand of a vigilante wife. Cave modified the lyrics to mockingly amplify American violence. His version depicts a bloodthirsty Lee on a rampage, the scenes strung together with a stream of expletives. Last week, Cave crouched down, with a contemptuous smirk on his face. Essentially rapping the lyrics, he described how Lee sodomized and shot his final victim. His gestures grew more animated with each line. Finally, the organ rang out and the guitarists attacked their instruments. Almost gnawing on his microphone, Bargeld let out a shrill shriek that sustained over the noise. Cave leapt backward, whipping his head, and screamed. The entire band jostled as the cacophony ceased as abruptly as it began.
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