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Like a Rhinestone Preacher

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.

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)

LTJ BUKEM
at the Echo, April 13

Flying his Progression Session CD series in from London, LTJ Bukem played a night at the Factory and a second at Silver Lake's the Echo. While the Echo show went off without his great Good Looking Records labelmate Nookie opening, Bukem and his boy wonder MC Conrad still tore it up, giving us the tracks and production values that we seem unable to replicate on the West Coast (or arguably in all the States). Offering much more than just efficiently steamrolling "Amen" breaks, Bukem's "atmospheric" drum & bass combines ambient Eno with the uplift of a '70s jazz-disco record. Conrad knows how to work a crowd, and gives the peeps whatever they can handle -- you go crazy, he gets crazier, only he doesn't lose his cool, his words just roll off the tongue at greater speed and with surprising clarity. Combine that with his knowledge of the tracks and Bukem's technique, and you have an MC who is truly a master of ceremonies.

Since a lot of the kids were off raving at Audiotistic, the crowd was a refreshing mixture of local heads and intelligentsia. The only problem (and this applies to most L.A. venues) was that promoters out here still don't know how to present the sound properly. When the Progression Sessions land in town, your sound system better progress, too. To our shame, U.K. DJs are used to better sound across the pond; it's not an afterthought over there, as cabinets are strategically arranged to create a large sweet spot. We still front-load the stage as if we're getting ready to see Sonic Youth. Bukem is no punk show, and if L.A. wants to be a legitimate electronic-music haven, the clubs better step up, and the fans need to speak up. (Daniel Siwek)

RADIO VAGO
at the Bigfoot Lodge, April 24

A historic achievement of sorts was celebrated between songs halfway through Radio Vago's set, when club booker/DJ Lee Joseph urgently worked his way through the dense pack of acolytes surrounding the small stage to announce that he'd just received a complaint about the noise. "That's a first for us," replied singer Adrienne Pearson, a bit puzzled, since Radio Vago weren't playing any louder than most bands on the scene. The anonymous objection was presumably based not on the group's literal volume but on their sound, which replaces poppy hooks and predictable verse-chorus patterns with an avalanche-assault of calamitous mood swings.

Although Radio Vago are sometimes lumped with the newer-wave revival, there's nothing remotely quirky or cutesy about their music; they're closer in spirit to darker, more experimental post-punks such as Joy Division and Gang of Four. On the ominous, lurching "Blood on My Hands," Jen Gillaspy churned out traditional power chords, but for most of the show she manipulated her guitar to stranger effect, as on the satellite-junk echoes clattering in the eerie spaces of "Intro (Yearly Note)." Bassist-singer Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Jenny Vassilatos attacked their instruments with a similar disdain for retro-rock convention, locking together in unusual death-disco patterns. As the charismatic Pearson writhed, possessed by the malevolent ghost that inhabits "Shotgun," Olivia Parriott typed at her rack of keyboards to evoke a wound-up music box filled with spiders. Parriott shifted from nightmarish to daydreamy on "Mail Order Bride," contrasting Pearson's sarcastic lyrics ("I promise we can customize") with a breezy, insidiously groovy melody.

Now that Pearson's finally back from last year's six-month sojourn in Scotland -- the group had to decline an appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer while she was away -- Radio Vago's eclectic following of riot grrrls, goths, art-punks and new wavers keeps growing. Just about everyone in the bar realized they were in the presence of something special. (Falling James)

LES SAVY FAV
at the Troubadour, April 26

Tim Harrington sauntered onstage in unflattering gray sweatpants and sweatshirt, and proceeded to lead the crowd in a series of warm-up exercises (squats and stretches).

"We're going to work tonight," he explained, and work it he did, as Les Savy Fav launched into an unforgettable evening of improvisational zaniness and some burly punk tunes.

The sweatpants didn't last long; Harrington soon dashed off stage left and returned, stripped down to a skintight bright-red wrestling suit that left little to the imagination (giving new meaning to the expression balls-out). Other antics included crawling (still singing) through the crowd on his hands and knees, humping a photographer's face, carving a makeshift mask out of a white towel, chopping off pieces of audience-member hair and decorating his Farfisa with them, and getting everyone (the sound and light crew, the security guards) in the house to clap ("No one will wake up tomorrow and wish that they had clapped!").

Harrington's crazy-man stage gusto is so off-the-hook and hilarious that it's easy to forget his comparatively sedate backup trio -- bassist Syd Butler, guitarist Seth Jabour and skinsman Harrison Haynes. Same goes for the music, which, for all its vigor, can be upstaged by the carnival performance. Still, it's hard to remember seeing indie-rockers pogoing so hard at the Troubadour; a minor mosh pit began to form until Harrington taught the moshers his "sexy Duran Duran dance."

Harrington is a master of audience encounter; at one point he shoved the mike into his crotch so fans could sing happily into the bulge. The encore, though, blew everyone away. Local rockers the Mars Volta joined Les Savy Fav, singing backup, playing bass, beating on the drums. Audience members danced wildly onstage, and an ecstatic couple in the front row took over on vocals while rock-pirate Harrington scaled the rigging and disappeared into the lights. (Nathan Ihara)

BUFFALO DAUGHTER
at the Troubadour, May 4

Buffalo Daughter slipped just once during their set -- on a new song called "5 Minutes" -- but the gaffe offered a respite from the barrage of backdrop images and forced guitarist Sugar and turntablist Moog into chummy banter and a real interaction with the audience that loosened up all of us for the better. To kick off the night, Moog had opened up the landing gear with a blast like a THX promo -- a fitting intro, since the focal point was not the Japanese trio (and their auxiliary drummer) but the two-screen background that, although seamlessly synced with the set list, unfortunately turned the crowd away from the sound and lethargically toward the accompanying projected videos. Sure, visuals are used to appeal to audiences, but here it was gratuitous eye candy. With eyes closed the pictures were much better than the done-to-death flashing pupils and nuclear blasts on the screens. Once behind your eyelids, you noticed how vibratingly heavy the bass bottom was, then maybe you heard faintly chirping aviary atmospherics or Steve Reichian marimba layers coming apart.

If the visuals were there to aid Buffalo Daughter, they didn't need them. They've got a solid front woman in Sugar, an angel voice in Yumiko and all the gray matter any art band needs in Moog. "Discotheque Du Paradis" grated on a 2001: A Space Odyssey riff, which melted into a Donna Summer "I Feel Love" Taser-gun beat. A segue between songs borrowed a bass motif from "White Lines" then dropped it again, lasting just long enough to catch the ear of a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing dude at the bar (who promptly did the pushing-the-ceiling dance.) Is Buffalo Daughter breaking down the mainstream barrier? If they keep up the MTV aesthetics they might pull it off. (Wendy Gilmartin)


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