Nick Cave Shares His ‘Stache as the 9:30

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

    ENCORE

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*

    ENCORE

14 Your Funeral, My Trial*
15 Jesus of the Moon*
16 Get Ready for Love
17 Stagger Lee

*not performed the prior night

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