The Critics: And his cigarette stayed lit all the way through

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Nick Cave lurches across the stage, a demonic-looking Frank Sinatra casting a dark shadow against the usually rarefied setting of the Royal Festival Hall. He flicks away his cigarette, points one evangelical finger at the audience and floods the hall with his melodic baritone.

Cave's transition from one medium to another has always seemed seamless: from extreme post-punk performer to critically-acclaimed author; exiled Aussie and leader of garage-punk cacophony the Birthday Party to arbiter of British cultural taste. Now he's curator of the Royal Festival Hall's Meltdown programme, and has wooed performers like Billie Whitelaw, Jarvis Cocker and Nina Simone to participate. His eclectic tastes have more than paid off: the three-week programme sold out in five hours; tickets for his performance with the Bad Seeds sold out in two.

Perhaps it's the contrast of such civilised surroundings but the "demon preacher" has never seemed so intense, brimming with soulful anger. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt, and bathed in a sea of red light, he switched from film noir crooner to raging proselytiser in the flick of a permanently-lit cigarette.

Starting with a slow track, "Let Love In", from his 1994 album of the same name, he moved on to the stormy "Do You Love Me", lurching to the edge of the stage and wagging an accusatory finger at the crowd. Meanwhile the Bad Seeds, a line-up of seven, including long-time collaborator Blixa Bargeld, appeared supremely poised and understated, fitting effortlessly around Cave's changing moods; from the romantic lounge-lizard percussion of "Lime Tree Arbour" to the maelstrom of "Red Right Hand" which got the all-seated crowd rushing for the aisles to get closer to him. Unusually, Cave stuck to popular hits and the Birthday Party material stayed minimal. The crowd-pleasers kept coming, with the mournful "Nobody's Baby Now" and murder ballad "Henry Lee". "Lover Man" marked a shift in mood and melodrama, with Cave turning his back on the audience, headbanging to the striking of tubular bells, then stalking across the stage. At times he looked like Mick Jagger impersonating Billy Graham.

Towards the end, the rage and fury went up a gear, culminating in "Mercy Seat". Here the Seeds came into their own, a grinding machine of guitars and drums. Back in lonesome-crooner mode, Cave finished with a heartfelt "Into My Arms". The crowd, a mix of pallid goths and trendy media types, refused to settle for one encore: Cave came back for three, thanking the audience but saying very little else. He has made some inspired choices for Meltdown, but it's safe to say none will match his own for sheer intensity.

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