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NPR’s South By Southwest outdoor showcase at Stubbs was a calculated exhibition of power and control. At the top of the bill: goth-punk renaissance man Nick Cave and genre-defying rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, both of whom turned the volume — and the energy — way up for their respective hour-long sets.
Cave and his group, The Bad Seeds opened the show, having only just begun to tour the United States in support of their new CD, Push The Sky Away, but they were already well rehearsed, flexibly moving from gentle ballads to hard rock urgency in the wink of an eye.
Dressed in trademark black the lanky singer was all arms and elbows as he dramatically groaned, howled and gestured suggestively. Cave constantly stalked the stage, pushing his dark persona to the forefront and goading the eager Austin crowd with songs of love, sex and violence.
One early highlight was the band’s rendition of “Jubilee Street,” an atmospheric meditation and emotional centerpiece of Cave’s new CD. Mixing several older songs into the set, Cave and the band reached a quick, manic frenzy with proper versions of “From Her To Eternity” and “Red Right Hand.” The Bad Seeds themselves were predictably loud and commanding. Seed mainstay Warren Ellis added sonic textures on the violin while old associate Barry Adamson supplied keyboards flourishes and Australian punk veteran Ed Keupper lent an extra layer of sound on guitar.
Cave’s voice was deep, strong and clear, and the 55-year old front man taunted the audience liked a crazed Shakespearean actor gone wild. The band’s X-rated version of “Stagger Lee” was impressively intense, mixing ultra-violent imagery and gay sexual bravado to the point that it actually seemed to intimidate the Austin audience.
You could say the same of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ blistering set, which kicked off with their new single, “Mosquito,” from their forthcoming album of the same name. Singer Karen O sizzled in a beautiful, heavily embroidered mustard yellow get-up worthy of Rhinestone-era Elvis Presley or, more appropriately, country-rock king Gram Parsons and his famous Nudie suits. She accessorized the look with red and silver pom-poms.
As showy performances go, Karen O’s jagged frenetic moves rarely feel disingenuous — though they can be dangerous as she teetered close to the edge more than once, all the while beckoning the audience, “Who’s gonna catch me if I fall?” On songs like “Zero,” with its pulsing beat and killer guitar lead, and the 2004 hit “Maps,” with guitarist Nick Zinner‘s languid melody and O’s dour refrain, “They don’t love you like I love you,” she shows a range to her stage presence and vocal ability — where she’s just as capable of jabbing at your heart with a shriek as she is with an unlikely, but somehow perfect, vocal transition. The latter she dedicated to “all the lovers” out in the crowd.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ set also included “Cold Light” from the Fever to Tell album, “Cheated Hearts” and “Gold Lion,” from 2006’s Show Your Bones, and a ferocious “Heads Will Roll,” from 2009’s It’s Blitz! The closer did just that.
NPR’s eclectic lineup also featured newcomers and Mercury Prize winners Alt-J and Latin alternative favorites Cafe Tacuba, each of whom was a welcomed moment of mellow for many a strained eardrum. Not that anyone was complaining.
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