Approaching the Schnitz on Saturday evening made it clear that Nick Cave’s return to Portland was nothing short of a goth holiday. It was date night in black, and anyone who was turned away from his sold out Crystal Ballroom show in 2008 had made damn sure not to make the same mistake.
Mark Lanegan opened the evening with a sparse set of smoky nocturnes in the slightest mood lighting—not even Mazzy Star sounded so barren. While effective, it also revealed of the limitations of Lanegan’s voice. The guitar accompaniment was immaculate, but Lanegan is not Axl Rose. It seems obvious that Cave chooses his support with care, not wanting to be upstaged by a throat more golden than his own.
When the Bad Seeds took the stage, a hush fell over the crowd. Dapper fellows held the hands of their lacily-dressed escorts. A dim light left the players in shadow. Then Nick Cave strode in to the sounds of “We Real Cool,” from 2013’s Push the Sky Away. And from this moment, the night took on an electric charge.
In 2008, Cave had serenaded the crowd, performing an excellent set of material. But it was far short of the revelation he had in store for 2014. Cave’s voice has never been the sharpest arrow in his quiver, yet this evening he sounded superb and in full command. If anything, the Cave of 2014 looked 10 years younger, and ravaged the stage with the energy of a wild young man in his twenties. (I’d bet money that he’s had some hair plugs, installed too.) The only time he sounded less than sterling was when he sat at the piano to croon "Love Letter." But that's easily forgiven, considering the ferocity with which he attacked "From Her to Eternity", "The Mercy Seat" and "Stagger Lee."
Pale-faced and savage, Cave tore through a set that leaned on recent material, and finished with the requisite hits. Despite the refined venue, Cave spat on stage and stormed into the crowd, walking the tops of seats until he was in the center of the audience, surrounded by adoring and supplicating hands. It was awe-inspiring to see the command he had of his faculties—and his worshippers. When the grasping horde tried to pull him down, he gracefully found his footing. And when an enthusiastic party touched him inappropriately, he claimed “harassment in the workplace” over the mic, and moved onward. Even when he faltered and repeated a lyric, the band behind him just extended the verse as if nothing had happened.
The communication on stage was breathtaking to observe as well. Though the spotlight was firmly on Cave, guitarist-violinist Warren Ellis led his crack team through a set that was alternately tense, dynamic and ultimately explosive. The Bad Seeds catalog defies genre, weaving Americana, gospel, blues, balladry and sometimes pure noise into a beautiful, breathing whole. Overall, it was a vital foundation for Cave’s antics and emoting.
If all this seems like hyperbole, let me spell it out. As much as I worship Cave’s early post-punk outfit the Birthday Party, I’ve never spent a lot of time with his solo catalog. I respect Cave, and appreciate his vision and his body of work. I saw the 2008 show and was duly impressed. What I saw on Saturday was simply one of the most incredible and humbling performances I’ve been fortunate to witness. Cave melded the poise of Sinatra with the viscera of Iggy Pop. He touched so many people in the crowd, made eye contact, spoke to them, signed posters while in midst of conducting an encore. It was a master class in rock, and not something anyone present will ever forget.