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Nick Cave
Hammersmith Apollo, London

Yahoo Music (June 2003)

At exactly twenty seven minutes past eight, the polite but firm announcement is made. "Nick Cave will take the stage in three minutes."

You can imagine the man who famously works a strict nine to five and refuses to speak to band members outside of working hours, even if they call a mere five minutes after clocking off time, standing backstage with a pocket watch, frowning a little. His first pronouncement onstage is functional. "Right," he declares, eager to crack on, hands crashing down on his piano. Stragglers be damned. The show has begun.

In a fractured world, a mark of quality: the Nick Cave live show. Another year, another superb yet criminally undervalued album - 'Nocturama' - and another brace of startlingly impressive concerts. Only the details have changed. "Blixa has gone," admits Cave. "It's sad, it's sad." The towel that Cave uses to mop his suitably furrowed brow is turquoise. In years past, this would have been a huge anomaly. Now, with the work in focus rather than the man, it's just part of the trimmings. All that matters is what happens during the performance itself.

Fittingly, for a man whose life has been informed by Christianity, there is a sense of the Bible about the songs played tonight. On the older, harder, harsher, more wilfully melodramatic songs - a crashing rendition of 'The Mercy Seat', a torrential 'From Her To Eternity' - he is Old Testament Nick Cave, a man of fire and brimstone and the wrath of the righteous. On the newer, slightly softer, more emotionally tender songs - a beautiful 'Wonderful Life', even the freewheeling yet invigorating 'Bring It On' - he is New Testament Nick Cave, a man of wisdom and purpose.

At the centre of the show, though, lies not Cave but Warren Ellis, he of the Dirty Three and the violin that bleeds temptation. While the Bad Seeds conjure intelligence and steel in their regular fashion, it's Ellis who careers off the rails at every opportunity, his legs flailing like he's trying to make a particularly tricky ten pin bowling shot. To call his playing magnificent is to fall several furlongs short of the mark: he is bloodshot drama incarnate, the tense momentum of determination, a man who can transform a mood with a spasm.

Highlights? Oh, the usual. The Birthday Party's 'Wild World', Cave howling "our bodies melting together" like youth is in his grasp once again. A faster, stormier 'West Country Girl', more Old Testament than New. 'The Singer' by Johnny Cash, Cave almost spitting out the pay-off: "Will you forget the singer so soon?/and will you forget the song?", to cheers and general delirium. 'The Mercy Seat', as always. The day that fails to level mountain ranges is the day everything gets shut down and dismantled.

"You've been fantastic," declares Cave, after the second encore. "See you all in two years." And you just know that the exact dates are already inked in his forward planner.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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