The world is grieving and needs to have a good therapy session. At least, that’s the sense you get from being in the room during Nick Cave’s current tour, ‘A Conversation with Nick Cave’.
When someone goes through the death of a loved one, the tendency is to recoil from the public to grieve and to heal. When an artist goes through a trauma, they deal with it by channelling it into their work. However, a musician will likely use their art as a shield, hiding behind their guitar and the cacophony of a band to keep them from being truly bare. That’s what makes macabre/ethereal singer-storyteller Nick Cave’s decision to take on this kind of tour right now so bizarre. The accidental death of Cave’s 15-year-old son during the sessions for 2016’s Skeleton Tree has given a massive weight to his already heavy body of work. There was an added gravity put to tape on the 2016 release and the subject of grief is front and centre on Ghosteen, his latest album, released last week. With this event looming over his life, why choose now to embark on a solo tour composed primarily of a question & answer session where he is primed to be asked all manner of questions about the most horrific occurrence of his life?
Cave swept himself on to the stage in his usual suave fashion, an effortless theatrical flare in his iconic three-piece suit. A Bad Seeds show would have him launching himself at the audience like a mongoose provoking its cornered prey to spike the crowd’s adrenaline but this was different. After an exuberant warm welcome, the room went quiet. Cave gave a brief guideline of the night’s proceedings, highlighting the fact that this was an open discussion and that he had a deep appreciation for the courage it takes to stand out in these situations. This was to be not only different from any other show but different from any other Q&A experience. The idea for the tour evolved out of a forum he had created called the Red Hand Files. This site began as any artist-fan page does, as a way to answer the perfunctory questions of the fanbase regarding the project but due to the intimate nature of Cave’s songwriting and particularly since the death of his son, the Files became an outlet for the grief and pain of loss that is ubiquitous around the world. The combination of the themes of the artist’s body of work with the recent events of his personal life made Nick Cave a lightning rod for those dealing with sorrow.
The audience wasted no time in delving into the heavy subject matter. No “What’s your favourite part of performing?” or “What is your favourite song to play?”. The first question came from a woman who recently lost a family member asking how to come to terms with the grief and how others can approach someone in that situation. Cave gave her a moment of compassion and reciprocity but didn’t hesitate to give a response with impressive candour and sage wisdom. The tone was set, this was not to be a night of treating over trivialities.
After a fairly heavy beginning with questions that continued to circle back to personal losses, Cave impulsively exclaimed “Why don’t I sing you a song?!” and with the glowing approval of the congregation he performed renditions of ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘The Weeping Song’ which acted as a sort of serum to quell the mournful crowd. A grand piano was set centre stage and behind him were ten or so tables of lucky fans arranged to make the evening feel like an appearance at an intimate jazz club rather than a sold-out auditorium. Cave surrounded himself with charts of a few dozen songs which could potentially get woven into his half orchestrated, half spontaneous set. The quintessential top tier tracks were on deck but he allowed for song references in the audience’s questions to segue into their performance. Seeing as this evening was taking place on Canadian soil and Cave was not only greatly influenced by Leonard Cohen but his voice and style were strongly aligned with the Montreal singer’s, the subject turned to him on more than one occasion. Auspiciously, he had a stunning rendition of Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ loaded in his arsenal and unleashed it following the first of several questions to bring up his relevance to Cave’s work. The performer’s first two numbers had put the devotees at ease and the conversation began to shift from dour to jovially inquisitive.
The questioners asked him to weigh in on a broad range of topics with them anointing him as some sort of grand authority on love, life and art. And to a great extent, he was. If there was something that he honestly could not answer, he was forthcoming with an “I don’t know” but those occurrences were quite rare. Even when questions became long-winded, convoluted and overly-esoteric, Cave managed to break them apart and get at the heart of the query in an extraordinarily patient and respectful manner.
Dr. Nick gave advice on love, marriage and parenthood. He shared the story of his relationship with drugs and addiction and what he believes is the best solution for the opiate/opioid crisis. He delved into the writing process from how and where he writes songs to his opinion on pop craftsmanship vs. his style of poetic counter-culture songwriting. Is artistry an innate talent or is it all practice and devotion to the craft? He fielded questions about past collaborations and bands (PJ Harvey, The Birthday Party, The Boys Next Door) and whether he plans to work any further in film or novels. He mused about favourite books and poems at the insistence of the poet laureate of New Westminster who announced himself in the audience.
Another (much more) notable figure amongst the theatregoers was New Wave legend and part-time B.C. resident Elvis Costello. The singer managed to stay unannounced for half the show before being called out by a star-struck fan during his question to Cave. He used Costello as a foil on several occasions, quipping “marriage is a lot easier when you can just leave on tour, hey Elvis?” The other ’80s icon who kept creeping into the conversation was The Smiths singer Morrissey and Cave reaffirmed his recent controversial stance that he can set the artist apart from his art. “Sometimes I stop and think, ‘My God! He can write a lyric!’ …even if he is a far-right asshole”.
The mid-show string of career milestones ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Into My Arms’, and ‘Jubilee Street’ were breathtaking in such an intimate setting, particularly ‘Jubilee Street’ which always astonishes live with the full band but was given a hypnotizing new life as a solo piano piece. The mantra of “I’m transforming/I’m vibrating/Look at me now!” took on new meaning in this communal sharing environment. A question about early project The Boys Next Door queued him up to play deep cut ‘Shiver’. A question about censorship brought up ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’ which he dutifully executed morphing the track’s driving acoustic rhythm into a rolling, lilting piano line. The fatherly connection once again echoed the evening’s undercurrent. Even an urging for new material from side project Grinderman came with a story about an ailing mother, so Cave dedicated his reimagining of ‘Palaces of Montezuma’ to Ruby.
Nearing the end of the evening, a bearded man in a brown sweater who had been given a mic sometime before but was long overlooked was finally called upon by Cave. He announced himself as a preacher who had lost his faith. Referencing his latest album he wondered if the artist had recovered some faith in recent years, alluding to the ultimate “Is there a God?” question. Cave stated that he could only answer for himself but for a room full of 1200 staunchly devoted disciples, this was the divine word. He reaffirmed a sentiment that leads one of his most revered ballads: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. The idea that God is not one cohesive power but rather a collection of energies. He acknowledged that the tropes of the heavenly afterlife and the departed being still with you can feel all too real but it can’t really be known if that’s true. In a last hopeful sentiment to the beleaguered minister, he urged him to “keep searching”.
By the time the stage manager was giving the signal that it had gone way over time, the questions had spiralled somewhat to long-winded, pre-written poetic musings that barely eeked out any sort of question, however Cave in his enduring graciousness, found a kernel of a query within them and gave as honest an answer as he could to the cosmic ramblings. One final set of performances delivered fan favourite ‘Stagger Lee’ (vulgar and jarring as ever, even as performed on solo piano) and the uplifting ‘Breathless’ from 2004’s The Lyre of Orpheus.
This Conversation series, much like his latest release Ghosteen, is less a fun show and more of a necessary intervention. Cave’s reasons for plotting this kind of tour were surely both selfish and altruistic. This was clearly a form of therapy for him. Being able to speak frankly about his son night after night not only helps him process the loss but in a way, allows his son to be up on stage with him every night. Also, the fanbase that he’s cultivated, particularly the subset that would travel to an auditorium in a suburb on a Thursday night just to hear him speak and play a couple of tunes, is the kind of support network he craves and deserves. However, beyond his own personal motives, Cave knew that sharing his story would illicit a ten-fold response from his followers. These “Bad Seeds” were primed to exorcize their traumas and glean any bit of advice they could from their guru. This tour is a singular experience. Sure, a full band concert is more comprehensively entertaining and in the future, I would probably welcome a solo show where he just sang his songs in their altered state rather than stopping every couple of tunes to chat with the audience but in terms of unique concert experiences, this one will be etched in my memory.
Read part 1 of our Nick Cave series, where Jon C. Ireson digs into Nick’s new album “Ghosteen”.