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ROCK / Thin dark dukes of Goth

IN THE middle of his superb set at the Empire, Nick Cave told the crowd a joke. It went like this. 'Bloke walks into a bar. Gets his head shot off. It could have been any of a dozen people.' And people say the man has no sense of humour. Admittedly, the punchline lacked focus, but the build-up was faultless. With that, his mighty six-piece band, the Bad Seeds, rattled into a song called 'Jangling Jack', from Cave's new album Let Love In. It was all about a bloke who walked into a bar and got his head shot off. Oh dear, it hadn't been a joke after all. He had just been introducing the next number.

Swaying elegantly across the stage, left arm suspended in the air as though draped around an imaginary unsteady mate, he led the band through the definitive Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds greatest-hits set. One minute, on 'Papa Won't Leave You, Henry', he bellowed profanities like a struck- off evangelist. The next, his Herman Munsteresque baritone gave way to a rich, artless croon on his classic gothic weepie, 'The Ship Song'.

On the Death Row epic 'The Mercy Seat' he shook and roared in the role of a murderer about to be taken to the electric chair. As always with Cave, it nudged self-parody. Then again, it's a self worth parodying. Railing-thin, fresh off his pale horse, he looks like a character from his own songbook: mad, bad and dangerous, etc.

The Bad Seeds are like no other rock band. As Cave pulled ever unlikelier styles from his song-writing sarcophagus - waltz, death march, Las Vegas ballad - they screeched and chimed in impassive silhouette. Their apparent disinterest was, however, fleeting: 'Brother, My Cup is Empty', a moaning, gospel-influenced shuffle, saw them fully animated - a rare and wonderful event.

But the best moment came when Cave put his arm round the lead guitarist, Blixa Bargeld. Bargeld, the inscrutable German who fronts Einsturzende Neubauten, has a physique that makes Cave look bloated. Shoulder to shoulder, they teetered gently like a pair of Swan Vestas to the sound of Quasimodo's bells. Very touching.

Luke Haines of The Auteurs has been claiming in interviews that he called their new album Now I'm a Cowboy just to see if sub-editors in the music press would fall for the old 'Firing Blanks' headline.

The sardonic Haines has taken the Elvis Costello route to success: feeble bloke writes lyrics and undergoes murderous transformation. Unlike Costello, Haines vents his spleen in an odd, strangulated hiss, like a cat expelling a furball. Invariably mentioned alongside Suede, they are more akin to the Go- Betweens, an influential Australian band of the Eighties. The melodies are dry and deceptively soft. Haines has clearly decided that, on stage at least, the softness has to go.

At the Junction in Cambridge, an expanded five-piece Auteurs fairly vaulted on to the stage, sporting newly bitten-off punk haircuts and a sense of anger that the original three-piece never had. Even James Banbury, the cello player, looked hard. Only bassist Alice Readman looked, as she usually does, nervous and wary.

With Steve Walker on second guitar giving him much more mobility, Haines (still the Auteur to watch) pouted and stomped, ripping up his meticulously turned couplets with glam-rock dynamics and bared teeth. 'The Upper Classes', jocularly dedicated to the entire city of Cambridge, came out fantastically poisonous.

The Junction responded boisterously to the band's new- found hooliganism. 'Right,' Haines said at the end, 'we're off back to the Holiday Inn bar to beat the crap out of East 17.' Alice didn't look too sure.