Performance Review: Nick Cave at the Factory

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at the Electric Factory, October 7th

Ten words or less … Imagine if Leonard Cohen were a prolific, shameless showman.

Strengths … Nick Cave is both high priest and card shark, the sort of reverend who finishes the Sunday benediction then deals a round of five-card stud in the shed out back. He and the Bad Seeds came on stage looking like proper gentlemen. But a couple of songs in, the suit jackets came off, the shirts untucked. One song more and they started undoing their buttons.

Cave is about 50 years old now, but twentysomethings comprised the majority of his audience at the Electric Factory. All you can say is, he did it: He got older and retained his cool. Even the kids understand. And his set at the Electric Factory galvanized the faithful. He resurrected “Tupelo,” from 1985’s The First Born Is Dead, as a kind of tell-it-like-it-is gospel song — the people pray for salvation, but God keeps watching, you know, from a distance. “Weeping Song” swung like jazz and “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry,” seemed somehow elemental, like the sheet music and lyrics had been found, cracked and yellowed, author unknown, just floating in the breeze. The new songs from Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! had their teeth sharpened in the trip from the studio to the stage.

And Cave is still volatile enough that when his keyboard didn’t work the first time he laid his hands on it, he sneered and kicked the thing off its stand. He pissed off his right-hand man, Mick Harvey, by telling him where to stand one too many times. And he looked ready to gut a tech who had trouble unwrapping an electrical cord from around his mike stand. But Cave was downright warm toward the audience, singling out individual people to sing to throughout the night. When he delivered the pretty, I’ve-found-Jesus ballad “Into My Arms,” he appeared to soothe his own savage breast — and set the audience swooning. All night long he was a tender menace, and could have had any girl in the room.

Weaknesses … The set list was short for an artist of Cave’s longevity: just 90 minutes, including encores. He could have played another hour without wearing out his welcome. Oh, and then there’s the mustache. Cave is overcompensating for his balding pate with a porn-star special of thick black hair across his upper lip. It “works” for him only because the caterpillar lip fits his eccentric persona.

Verdict … Cave is the most hyper-literate songwriter currently working in rock. And after performing for roughly 35 years now, he seems to grow right up out of the stage. I wish you could have been there.