NPR logo The Fall

The Fall

Monday night, I went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. If it weren't so obnoxious, I would write this post in all caps — that would be the easiest way to convey the electricity I witnessed. Or I could use short, monosyllabic phrases like "Holy f—-!" to indicate that my senses are slayed and useless.

I've never seen Nick Cave perform live. Leading up to the show, I'd been listening to a mix CD in my car that contains mostly slower, ballad-like tunes — love songs delivered like dirges. But those songs didn't prepare me for the guitar, violin and double-drums onslaught that left my ears ringing until midway through Tuesday afternoon.

Nick Cave is a mustache on a wire. He has a black drape of hair, receding in the front; he is open-shirted and wild, pelvis undulating. His hands flutter and pose, pointedly and suggestively, and you really feel like you might give anything to be on the receiving end of their call. By that, I mean that you want to be where the music is, at its edges and its core, and it seems to be pouring out of every inch of Cave; both in short fits and long, haunted waves. Cave is a giver on stage. There is no holding back, no wastefulness, no taking it for granted. It was his birthday that night, and when someone from the audience acknowledged the fact, Cave replied, "I am disgracefully old." If disgrace rather than grace is what nurtures guts, is what buries fear, then more artists should unravel themselves from the stifling grip that is poise and posturing.

Cave's Bad Seeds are no less impressive. Warren Ellis of Dirty Three played violin and electric guitar — one of which was absolutely tiny and constantly being devoured — and looked like a street urchin in the process. A beast of a beard, a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, only the front row knows what he was doing down there on the floor. All I could see was his hand rise up — for air, for effect, for a life raft; I could not tell. When the entire group sings, it is an omnipotent taunt, or, as my friend called it, "mantown." Whatever it was, it was more like an avalanche than a band.

I love being a new witness. A convert. Sometimes, I want music to knock me down so hard that it's a struggle to stand up again. The best music, and especially some of my favorite live moments, are like this — so forceful that I need to regain my balance. Yes, it's unnerving to be caught off-guard by a sound — for it to unsettle as oppose to soothe. But it's not a bad thing, on occasion, to have music cause you to lose your footing. By the end of the Nick Cave show, it felt like I'd fallen hard.