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Like a Rhinestone Preacher 

Nick Cave survives and surpasses

Wednesday, May 8 2002
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Photo by Thomas Rabsch

NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
at the Wiltern, April 16 and 17

Six or seven eras ago, Spin magazine famously declared Nick Cave "The Last Rock & Roll Star." That was wrong, of course, but on any given night, Cave and his band the Bad Seeds can make you think otherwise.

Take these two nights at the Wiltern. Of course it wasn't like old(er) times: Cave these days looks healthy, his hair is shorter and slightly thinner, and unlike in every other Cave and the Bad Seeds show I've seen, he didn't even remove his jacket. That may be due to the large number of admittedly quite beautiful piano ballads he croons these days -- so many, interspersed across the set like grace notes, that on the second night almost all of the audience remained seated until the encore. Even then, Cave kept at it, jumping from behind the ivories to the lip of the stage, his head nodding forward a bit, his face shocked like that of a staggering brawler just sucker-punched in a bar fight, his left hand extended over the front rows, grasping for words just beyond his range, just beyond his ken. And then he'd have them -- not just words, but lines, paragraphs, whole novellas: black-and-red miniatures, holy/unholy radiant stuff descended from Flannery O'Connor and Big Bill Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, Southern-crossed through the tear trails of Jimmy Swaggart and the blue-sung songs of, er, Neil Diamond.

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Which just goes to show: Since his anointment by Spin all those thousands of years ago, Cave has moved in ways almost no one could have foreseen. He's outlived a heroin addiction, he's developed his singing range, he's uncovered a gift for melody and classical song structure, his lyrics have begun to show humor and loss as well as cruelty and desire. It's roses as well as thorns now, dark hair and arbor lanes as well as knives and rope and killing floors.

But best of all, as demonstrated by the first night's final, blinding encore of "Stagger Lee," Cave and the Bad Seeds have somehow preserved the seemingly unpreservable -- an ability to shift into pure, furious malevolence at the crash of a snare. So there he was, our noir St. Nick, performing a slinky libretto of rhinestoned preachment as if his fate hung in the balance, his back covered by an explosive seven-piece Cabaret & Western rock & roll band (now permanently joined by Dirty Three violinist/prancer Warren Ellis) that knew when to hush up, when to funk it up and when to unload. As Cave finished vamping his way through this O.G.-est of original-gangsta folktales, veteran Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld stepped up to the mike and delivered a hide-the-children shriek. The stage lights went incandescent; the music arced, burst, crashed; and Cave -- his back to the audience, facing this magnificent sound -- CONVULSED, as if his lanky body had been electrified and cracked by the music itself. For a long moment his outstretched arms seemed to extend across the width of the Wiltern's stage, fingertips reaching impulsively toward the light's edges, as if physically longing for the darkness whence the song issued. Here was a man dealing in temptation, in sexiness and murderous sin, in an overwhelming, ferocious act of primal catharsis: Here was, in short, a Rock & Roll Star.

THE BRIEFS, CRACK, VON STEINS
at the Garage, April 19

As a bigger, faster, stronger version of Al's Bar, the Garage demanded that synth-pop mods Von Steins actually break a sweat for the top-dollar-paying Saturday-night crowd: The singer, Gunther, windmilled his arms like an axless Pete Townshend, while Miak's guitar growl equaled and even surpassed the lookit-me squalls of Udo's keyboarding. (Yes, they really are five German brothers.) Von Steins are a hard act to follow, but Crack easily upstaged 'em with a bouncy hardcore bite that busted boundaries. Heavy guitars were leavened by a pogoing thug spitting beat-box noise into his mike while his guitarist partner occasionally tickled a Casio organ. Any Crack fan who was absent done fucked up: Last Saturday was officially the band's final show.

Like a time capsule sealed off in 1977, the Briefs so pitch-perfectly replicated punk's first wave -- right down to the safety pins, hexagonal sunglasses and polka-dot ties -- it was as if the whole Green Day/Offspring travesty never happened. Who'da thunk these guys were from Seattle, the way their cockney shout-outs battled the buzzing midtempo melodies of "Poor and Weird," "Where Did He Go" and "Sylvia"? To drummer Chris Brief's chugalugging pound, bassist Lance Romance and guitarists Steve E. Nix and Daniel J. Travanti spewed beer over peroxided heads like a clip from The Decline of Western Civilization minus the hostility. An amalgam of Sex Pistols snarl, Ramones humor and Rezillos fashion sense, the Briefs blended their influences seamlessly enough to defy claims of plagiarism. Bored with rebellion themes, the band used the Cold War­inspired goofery of their penultimate number, "(I Think) My Baby's a Communist," to elevate themselves to punk-for-smart-people-only status. Though they have signed with Interscope (full-length forthcoming this summer), have just completed a SXSW showcase and are already generating tons of hype, the Briefs' authenticity hasn't suffered. What year is this again? (Andrew Lentz)

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