Nick Cave, The Sage, Gateshead

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The Independent Culture

"You shout 'em, we'll play 'em!" Although "showman" is not a word one would normally use to describe Nick Cave, as the unusually relaxed singer mocks the North-east accent, banters with the crowd, and even invites them to choose the set, he is pure value-for-money entertainer.

But, as you might expect from the Man in Black of the indie generation, there's a twist in the tail of his showmanship. His craft is born from an ability to see the ridiculous side of the performer/fan relationship. That his intensely personal songs are being shared in such a large public space is strange enough, but when people call out for them in the quite moments, it is just surreal. Like a congregation calling out for a favourite hymn in the middle of a blessing. Cave sees the humour of this situation, and his performance is all about mocking the different perspectives of the show - the relationships between performer, audience and venue all come under the hammer of his dry wit.

And so, the suited and booted Mr Cave, ably supported by a stripped-down band (ultra-tight bass and drums, and a madman dredging out extreme sounds from both mandolin and violin), sits at a brand new Steinway grand and seemingly picks songs at random, inspired by the calls from the auditorium. He laughs when someone asks for "Release the Bats" (a Gothic punk classic by his original band, The Birthday Party); jokingly reminds his band how some of the older songs go; and shuffles lyric sheets on his music stand as if responding to the more unusual requests. And all the while, Cave and his band are actually sticking religiously to a previously planned set list.

Not that such false spontaneity affects the actual performance. In fact, the trick provides a welcome air of intimacy to what is a large, seated auditorium more suited to an orchestral concert. Furthermore, the combination of the low-key band and the pinpoint accuracy of the venue's acoustics brings new depth and beauty to Cave's dark balladry. Nowhere is this more effective than on "God is in the House", in which Cave's voice resonates with passion, dropping from a spiritualist's exhalation to a broken whisper as the song moves to an aching close. It's an effect that brings the song's pathos to the fore, adding drama to an already poignant lyric.

"Hallelujah" and "Love Letter" are similarly improved, while the bride- stripped-bare ambience of "Ship Song" allows new space for Cave's booming voice. Set highlights come in the shape of the alternative outlaw anthem "Stagger Lee", and the death-row prayer "The Mercy Seat" (which is closer in spirit to the Johnny Cash version than his own, abrasive original). Indeed, both songs find new power in their (almost) acoustic form.

If there were ever any doubts that Cave in Unplugged mode could fill large venues, tonight's show throws them to the wind. Not only does Nick Cave have the songs, he is also blessed with a rare charisma... and more than a little showmanship. Just don't ask for a song that's not already on the set list.

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