Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Brighton Centre, Brighton

This elder statesman of rock is happily absurd

Reviewed,Fiona Sturges
Wednesday 26 November 2008 01:00 GMT

The last time I saw Nick Cave he was shopping for groceries in Marks & Spencer. It's not a sight you expect to see – the latter-day harbinger of the apocalypse clutching a wire basket and scanning the ready-meal section. Sure, he was looking suitably spooky with his raven-black hair and pallbearer's suit but it was an unsettling experience, like spotting the Pope at a pop festival.

Tonight, Cave is back in his natural habitat, stalking on to the stage like a character from Grimm's Fairy Tales with his widow's peak and etiolated frame, and warmly greeting "the beautiful people of Brighton" (and, as a resident, he can include himself). As he trawls his generous back catalogue of murder ballads, romantic odes, punk noise-fests and rock'n'roll showstoppers, he is, as ever, magnetic – a consummate showman complete with rabid, fist-shaking, hip-thrusting rock-star poses.

All this – the suit, the dyed hair, the rock-star shapes – coming from a man well into his fifties is patently absurd, and no one knows this better than Cave himself, who notes, after a couple of quieter, sit-down-at-the-piano numbers, that it was time for the "old guys" to take a breather. Yet even during his howling, fire-and-brimstone crescendos Cave pulls it off. Having recently released Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, one of the greatest works of his career, he remains quite simply one of the coolest performers in existence, untouchable in intellect, charisma and sheer feral energy. Cooler, even, than his wilder, early-Eighties Birthday Party self when he would frequently injure himself during gigs and, offstage, could be found slumped semi-conscious on the Underground with a syringe hanging out of his arm.

Tonight's set is a comprehensive one that takes its lead from Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! ("Hold On To Yourself", "We Call Upon The Author", "Midnight Man" and a furious, electrifying version of the title track) before veering off into 2004's double album Lyre of Orpheus/ Abattoir Blues ("Get Ready For Love" and the seldom-performed "Nature Boy") and then much, much further back with "Tupelo", "People Ain't No Good", "Deanna", "Red Right Hand", " Stagger Lee" and "God Is In The House" ("We've painted our kittens white so we can see them in the night").

"The Mercy Seat", a song in which a convicted murderer compares his imminent death via the electric chair to that of Christ's on the cross, and regarded as Cave's finest, is nonchalantly added in the middle. A lesser artist, short on classics, would have saved it until the end. But Cave's unique songwriting style means that every song is an event in itself – each line is rich with imagery, each track a complex novella in which he articulates romantic longing, religious despair and casts a light on the dark underbelly of human nature. There's plenty of humour, too – "Prolix! Prolix! Nothing that a pair of scissors can't fix!" he yelps in "We Call Upon The Author". Cave's voice may be a flawed instrument, splintering on the high notes, but he remains one of the most visceral and impassioned singers around.

Between songs there is a limited amount of banter, with Cave seeing off hecklers' taunts, encouraging the occasional sing-a-long and even intervening – from a safe distance – in a scuffle between front-row punters ("Put them in separate rooms," he growls. "It's what I do at home"). Surrounding him all the while are the Bad Seeds, now operating as a seven-piece, and who come similarly attired in dark suits, open-necked shirts and slicked-back hair. So much more than a backing band – at least three are participants in Cave's garage-blues Grinderman project – they are worthy performers in their own right.

Chief among them is Warren Ellis, a bearded, crazed-looking Caliban figure, who spends much of the night bashing the bejesus out of a violin and a "mandocaster" (an electric mando-lin-guitar hybrid) with his back to the audience, stopping only to deliver occasional kicks in the direction of Cave's backside. Not that Cave takes this lying down. After nearly three decades in the business he may have attained elder statesman status, but you can be sure that he still kicks back.

Touring to 30 November

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