Puncture #10 - Fall 1985

Hammersmith Palais, London - April 28, 1985

Black-clad crowds packed the Palais to witness the return of the Black Crow King from his months in the wilderness (actually Hansa Studios in Berlin), creating more tortured blues for our edification.

As heralds on this occasion, we had Sonic Youth making their first major London appearance. British audiences can go overboard about any New York act, but equally they often champion such bands long before the American public catches on (e.g. Television, Ramones). Sonic Youth went down a storm tonight, and deservedly so: in contrast to some of their recent performances in the US (see reviews in Puncture #9), they were disciplined and determined, lifted to new heights possibly by the audience's obvious enthusiasm. Working feverishly, with almost murderous intent, they plucked, bowed, and beat their guitars into patterns of awesome rhythmic power, to an accompanying bedlam of screeches and klaxon howls. Yet they conjured unexpected melodic deftness out of this noise, at times veering into riffs a Khachaturian of metal might produce: a combination few bands since the Velvets have accomplished.

Nick Cave emerged in faded tux and tight black pants, the perfect seedy strip joint host. The band, minus Blixa and plus Rowland Howard, lurched into action. Nick adjusted his bow tie, fumbled in his pocket like an absentminded old gent for his harmonica, and we were into "Blind Lemon Jefferson."

Nick's singing style hasn't changed -- it still sounds like he's arguing with himself -- but his voice, always unique, continues to gain in strength and flexibility. He soars from gruff moans and bass rumblings to yelps and crooning. The admirably tight and virtuoso band gives every song a framework within which he can roam freely, totally confident that his voice will convey his lyrical purpose.

If there's a major flaw, it's perhaps that many of the songs seem highly derivative of American blues, both in form and downbeat content. Some reviewers feel these laments are all pose and no substance. But there is an ironic twist to much of the material that suggests Cave is aware of the problem, and often he transcends these limitations and produces a genuine sense of passion and sorrow.

Certainly in performance one is rarely troubled by such thoughts. The sensual pleasure of Nick's voice and the expansive gestures, twitches, and contortions that accompany his vocal delivery make for a great live show. The highlight tonight was "Wanted Man," which the band built into a frenetic blizzard of noise as Nick shrieked and spat out the words.

Then, with Cave reunited on stage with both Howard and Mick Harvey for the first time since the Birthday Party's demise, he pretended to spot ex-guitarist Tracy Pew in the audience before launching into an encore of "Wild World" and "Jennifer's Veil" -- much more disciplined versions than BP ever produced live. Nick Cave's accomplishment, at this stage, seems to be to have translated the controlled power of those last Birthday Party EPs (their finest hour) into a substantial body of recorded and live work. Let's hope he can carry it still further, but meanwhile don't miss his October US tour.

- Anna Kay