July 14, 2014

Baritones for the Painfully Alone

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds/Mark Lanegan
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
July 5
"It's very dark up here," said a squinting Nick Cave after his first song. While the black-clad transgressor was referring to the lack of stage lighting in that moment, it seemed natural to take it in reference to the Cave and Bad Seeds gestalt. But "dark" is far too facile, it does no justice to the wide-ranging, pysche-bashing storm of music this septet gathers up and throws at their audience. From the pulsing, flute-accented opener "We Real Cool" to actual pin-drop whispering (the faith-satirizing "God is in the House") to the jagged, bullet-ridden trauma of "Stagger Lee," Cave was a sinister minister, a piano bar romantic, a lanky scarecrow being electrocuted. It was like witnessing a pagan ceremony, bar brawl, and chamber music recital all mashed together; a post-punk tent revival with howls of desolation going unanswered.

Considering Cave himself, they just don't build them like this anymore. With the exception of Leonard Cohen, one is hard-pressed to identify another living music figure armed with such a varied, literary, and gallows humor-flecked body of work that can meet the challenge of his best songs on the concert stage, with charisma to spare. Cave was especially masterful at achieving oneness with his congregation: Not only did he use three small, jutting platforms to step out and immerse himself among his faithful (he was surrounded by, and occasionally leaning on, outstretched arms), he startled the room by wading deep into the orchestra section, corded microphone be damned, and planted himself to sing the jolting "Tupelo" and later, the brooding "Push the Sky Away."

Push the Sky Away (Photo by Eric Layton)

This rare, direct mingling of artist and audience served as a reminder that there's a complete lack of danger and unpredictability in the rock pantheon anymore; if Cave was a stalking, emotional Quasimodo ringing bells on this night, this in-your-face convergence with his worshipful fans was the toll that rung loudest. While all this might be taken as a stunt akin to stage-diving, it felt more like he was kicking against the strictures of live rock n' roll. Roger Waters once dreamt up a "wall" at the apotheosis of his rock star alienation; in Cave's world, that barrier needn't exist, and it's rather silly, anyway. The conspicuous absence of security guards anywhere near the stage was refreshing, and suggested that this Antipodean poet would rather throw caution to the wind and trust his ticket-buying public. It was a move that paid off exponentially.

On the road in support of his latest album Push the Sky Away, Cave disturbed the Schnitz quite handily, but he was aided and abetted by the Bad Seeds (violinist/string-mauler Warren Ellis; drummer Jim Sclavunos; pianist/organist Conway Savage; bassist Martyn P. Casey; multi-instrumentalist Barry Adamson; and guitarist George Vjestica), a murder of crows that mostly stood in place and emitted atmosphere like a warm arterial spray, while their leader defiled, debriefed, and descended. Cave raised goosebumps with "Red Right Hand," reached back 30 years to his debut with the turbulent "From Her to Eternity," and invited opening act Mark Lanegan out for a shivering duet on "The Weeping Song." The setlist was satisfyingly career-spanning, and after the galloping death march "Papa Won't Leave You Henry," it featured the deep cut "The Lyre of Orpheus," an ominous recasting of a Greek myth. But on this night, recanting such fables seemed redundant as this rock n' roll outlier continued to build on his own myth, unleashing a performance that should be rightfully talked about in Portland for years to come.

Setting the table for Cave's musical "Red Wedding" was Lanegan, armed with only a guitar player and his stark baritone. Having fashioned a respectable solo career for himself after years in the Seattle rock trenches with the Screaming Trees, the stoic singer held listeners rapt with his signature voice. Bleak tales ensued, complete with lyrics of blades upon wrists, gravediggers, and one way streets. His cover of Bertold Brecht's "Mack the Knife" was unsettling, and under dusky stage lights, Lanegan established the right mood for what was to transpire next.