Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Carling Apollo, London<br></br>Mew, Hop and Grape, Manchester<br></br>Jet, Roadhouse, Manchester

If he wasn't himself he'd be ridiculous

A friend of mine saw Nick Cave the other day. He was wearing brightly-coloured Bermuda shorts (you can take the man out of Australia...), and paddling in the sea at Brighton beach with his children. I mention this not for some sub-Heat celeb-caught-off-guard trivia, but because it forced me to contemplate how difficult it is to imagine Nick Cave wearing anything but a sober black suit. The only comparable experience of my own was seeing Stuart Staples, the Harold Wilson lookalike who sings with the (Cave-inspired, and similarly-besuited) Tindersticks, at Heathrow Airport in a pair of purple Fruit of the Loom jeans.

Not that these guys don't deserve private lives and days off, but the very fact that the image of a Bermuda'd up Cave is so shocking reveals something about the man himself: he has become a signifier, a living, breathing, walking piece of visual shorthand.

If Nick Cave wasn't Nick Cave, he'd be ridiculous. Imagine if you saw him on the street: this balding bat-nosed beanpole with a Barrymore physique and a Cleese walk. But he is Nick Cave, and so it works, and therefore he's the coolest man alive.

And naturally, when he steps out into the Apollo tonight, he is - like every last man of the Bad Seeds - wearing a sober black suit. There are signs, though, that Cave is minded to deconstruct his own iconography, and puncture his self-created air of sombre inapproachability. The first thing he does tonight is to slap hands with the front row, and announce - as though welcoming us into his living room - "You can sit, you can stand, whatever".

This new informality troubles me slightly throughout the show. Cave takes way too much notice of heckles. You want to shout "stop it, you'll only encourage them", but restrain yourself for fear of becoming part of the problem.

But when he's in his element, he's untouchable. It's a set which stretches from the latest album (Nocturama), way back to The Birthday Party ("Wild World"), alternating between piano ballads and body-wracking gothic cowpunk frenzy. Cave is a consummate showman, and the little touches are everything. During the badass parable "Red Right Hand", a single red spotlight is trained parallel to the ground. When he reaches the chorus, he raises one hand into its reddening beam.

The birth of Elvis is given a Biblical spin in a particularly deranged "Tupelo" (perhaps the ultimate NC&TBS tune). Now, Cave is no Elvis - well, a postmodern Presley, perhaps - and doesn't throw his towels to the madding crowd. But the seven deadly Seeds are his Jordanaires. With their unfakeable air of Epicurean nonchalance - there are champagne flutes and bottles of Moët on the amps, and a new cigarette at every encore - and their end-of-the-night attire at the start of the evening (open shirts and slicked back hair), the Bad Seeds look like men who've sold their souls to the devil, and play like Satan himself. Particularly impressive is the violinist with the madly twitching right leg, who compulsively leaps onto the drum riser, and at one point, flings his bow over his shoulder and strums. This is the most powerful band in the world. They could back anyone.

I'd have killed for "Papa Won't Leave You Henry", "Sunday's Slave" or "Straight To You", but Cave trumps them all by ending with "The Ship Song". It's nothing more than metaphor - and mixed metaphor at that - but it's one of the greatest love songs ever written. "We'll be back in... two or three years", he says as a parting shot. Don't leave it so long.

Manchester, city of romance. Don't laugh - the red brick and rain are as evocative as any French or Italian city you care to mention. It all depends what Manchester means to you. Is it "You've gotta roll with it, you've gotta take your time, you've gotta say what you say, don't let anybody stand in your way..."? Or is it "And if a double decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die..."? A mere gladiolus's throw across the road from the Holy Name Church, as namechecked on The Queen is Dead, The Smiths faction gather. The headliners at the Hop and Grape are decidedly romance-free pop-punkers OK Go, but we're only here for the Bjerre. Jonas Bjerre, that is, the crystal-voiced singer with Danish support band, Mew. "Don't you just love goodbyes?" he sings on "156" - only two songs in, and already he's dwelling on farewell - and it encapsulates Mew's exquisitely bittersweet, emotionally masochistic mood as well as any other snippet I could provide. Mew are, to be very crass about this, "the indie A-ha" (Bjerre's soaring falsetto is pure Morten Harket), or perhaps "the Danish Aztec Camera". It's a Love In A Cold Climate thing (Denmark probably isn't even that cold, but the Scandinavian mentality pervades and prevails).

They manage to make straightforward indie guitar pop sound like a matter of life and death, or even, sometimes, A Matter of Life and Death. And speaking of cinema, the film reel which spools over their faces (leaving me none the wiser as to what they actually look like) is wonderful: Pre-Raphaelite beauties and doves and dragonflies and baby dolls and bunnies on motorcycles.

A taxi ride across town in the underground sauna of the Roadhouse, the Oasis contingent are out in force. Jet have been talked up as "The Australian Oasis" - if "up" is quite the right direction - but the reality is not quite so relentlessly dreadful. Before I've seen the Melbourne foursome in the flesh, I'm already torn. For a start, anyone who calls their debut EP "Dirty Sweet", after a line from TRex's "Get It On", is fine by me. But anyone who appears on the cover of this EP wearing a Disco Sucks T-shirt, after the late Seventies quasi-racist, quasi-homophobic movement who famously detonated thousands of 12-inch singles before a baseball match, most certainly isn't.

There's a modicum of truth in the Oasis comparison ("Take It or Leave It" really does advise "rolling with it" as a recommended course of action, and in Nick and Chris Sester, they possess a pair of sparring siblings) but they're actually a lot more like an Australian AC/DC (the riff on "Cold Hard Bitch" is pure Angus), were it not for the fact that this would make them, er, AC/DC.

However, as soon as they step out onto the Roadhouse stage, another - even older - influence becomes evident. "Move On" is so similar to "You Can't Always Get What You Want" that, were we not in a basement, I'd be on the mobile to Keith Richards' lawyer. Another song lifts the intro from "Gimme Shelter", while another still reprises the drum break from "Satisfaction". It turns out Keef wouldn't mind: he liked Jet enough to hire them as a support act. Now, I'm not averse to a bit of Stones copyism, and Jet do it with a degree of likeable nerve, but they push their luck a little too far on "Rollover DJ", a song which (after Chuck Berry's shot across Beethoven's bows) castigates some turntablist or other. "You've been playing other people's songs all night", they complain. If this isn't exactly what Jet have been doing, I will eat a hat of their choice.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Mew/ OK Go: Fleece & Firkin, Bristol (0117 983 4503), Mon; Glastonbury Festival (01458 834 596), 27 June

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