Nick Cave is rock’s patron saint of tortured souls, a cross between Elvis Presley and Elmer Gantry. His music explores classic issues of sin and salvation, misery and mercy, demons and doubts.
This is not casual pop fare--and Cave, while rarely uninteresting as a writer, often has trouble on record framing his Gothic tales with enough accessibility or flair to make the albums reach much beyond a devoted cult.
On stage Thursday night at Bogart’s in Long Beach, however, Cave injected most of his tunes with unsettling fury--making each seem like the compelling vision of a man who has been close enough to the edge to see his life flash before him a few times.
Cave, an Australian who came to attention in rock in the early ‘80s as a member of the punk-inspired Birthday Party band, didn’t look like a man who has been frequently dunked in a well of misery when he walked on stage shortly after midnight. Wearing a tasteful sport shirt and slacks, he greeted the audience politely and made sure his bottle of mineral water was on a nearby amplifier.
As the five members of his Bad Seeds band began playing the opening “City of Refuge,” Cave slowly prowled the stage, much like a prizefighter getting a feel for a new ring. He spun around a few times to see how far he could move without hitting equipment and placed his foot on a sound monitor to make sure it would hold his weight.
Once satisfied, he exploded with the anxious electricity of early Presley, using the sound monitor as a steppingstone to lean over the heads and arms of the fans pressed against the front of the stage. Flailing his arms, with neck veins bulging, he addressed the faithful with Gantry’s evangelical zeal, he shouted, “You better run ... You better run and run and run.”
Like much of his music, “City of Refuge” is an apocalyptic tale filled with fire and brimstone imagery. Cave delivered it and subsequent numbers with the obligation and alarm of an anointed messenger--his band playing the slightly blues-tinged rock with authority and snap.
For all the darkness and despair, Cave’s music frequently offers comfort and compassion. As he howls forbidden thoughts, he looks into the eyes of the audience, as if to find a common humanity. The unspoken question of the evening: “Have you ever felt this way?”
In his furious mix of anxiety and idealism, Cave has some pop companions--from the haunting confessionals of Leonard Cohen to the abandon and religious imagery of Patti Smith.
Even though Cave chose his material well (including a biting rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman”), the show seemed l-o-n-g as it neared the hour mark. One reason was Cave put so much intensity into the early numbers that he couldn’t maintain the pace.
Just when the show seemed to be losing its focus, however, Cave regained command with “The Mercy Seat,” a magnificently designed tale of a Death Row inmate cursed with a philosopher’s obsession for examining questions of values and guilt.
Sample lines: And the mercy seat is waiting / And I think my head is burning / And in a way I’m yearning / To be done with all this measuring of truth.
Cave followed soon afterward with “From Her to Eternity,” a tale of loneliness and loss that demonstrates some of his most solid and appealing pop instincts.
For the encore, Cave--who’ll headline tonight at the Club With No Name at the Park Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles--actually stepped into the pop arena for a faithful treatment of Jimmy Webb’s late ‘60s hit, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
When Cave began doing “Phoenix” and other pop numbers (including Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto”) a few years ago, some of his admirers thought the choice of tunes was meant as a joke. But there is something in the straight-forward, sentimental strains of those tunes that clearly interests Cave, a simplicity he may well envy.
The crowd at Bogart’s was apparently aware of Cave’s sincerity in singing the song, so there was no snickering. For Cave, “Phoenix” served as a calming benediction after a night of storm warnings.
Rather than detract from the energy and obsession of his music, the disarming display of selflessness from a man who is usually viewed only in the most declarative terms served to underscore the imagination and heart that goes into framing his own rock vision. If his records make him seem destined to remain a cult artist, the live shows suggest he deserves to be so much more.
Cave is joined on his first U.S. tour in two years by England’s Beefheart-inspired Wolfgang Press, a band with another original, if considerably less sweeping vision.
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Monday for the Bangles’ April 15 concert at the Santa Monica Civic, and also for Graham Parker’s solo performance on April 3 at the Wiltern. Parker will also be at Bogart’s on April 6. . . . Tickets go on sale today for Bon Jovi’s April 22 Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre date. . . . New Order will be at the Universal Amphitheatre on April 27-28. Tickets are available now. . . . Tiffany will play two shows on April 15 at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim. . . . A second Crowded House date at the Pantages has been added for April 7. . . . Duran Duran returns to the Southland with a March 24 show at Irvine Meadows. . . . Tickets go on sale Sunday for Alabama’s Pacific Amphitheatre concert on April 7. figures.