It’s hard to know how to start a review of a show (experience?) that addressed heroin addiction, meditation, cancer, and a child’s death. I could sit and ponder what I expected of Conversations With Nick Cave but, to be honest, I’d come up with either many answers or none. Honestly? This isn’t a review – I can’t critique him, who am I to even try? I don’t mind passing comment on records and releases but shut the front door, this is Nick Cave.
Towards the end of the evening, Nick talked briefly of Leonard Cohen and how he didn’t nor doesn’t feel deserving of being spoken of in the same sentence let alone in the same grouping of songwriters. Cave is my Cohen. There is no-one else like him and nor will there ever be; his writing has woven its way through my life since the early nineties when I first discovered him through Murder Ballads and his duet with PJ Harvey. I’ve seen him before as a frontman, but never on a stage in my capital city with randomly-picked audience members sat, probably shitting themselves, around his piano.
The experience opens with Nick Cave entering the stage in darkness whilst ‘Steve McQueen’ is played softly in the background; a spoken word piece that accompanied the Once More With Feeling film, which focused on the making of Skeleton Tree, the record which followed his teenage son Arthur’s tragic death. It is grounding, a reminder that the human on stage waiting to open himself up to whatever questions come his way, is human. Because it’s really fucking easy to forget that Nick Cave is human.
Stewards are placed around the Donald Gordon theatre with torches to indicate there’s an audience member waiting to ask a question. A few are taken after openers ‘God Is In The House’ and ‘West Country Girl’ before a gentleman two rows in front of me stands, hands shaking, as he holds the words he has prepared. He, like most, starts by thanking Cave for coming to Cardiff and for his music over the years. He goes onto to tell thousands of unknown yet, for tonight, completely aligned strangers, that he has recently been diagnosed with advanced cancer and listened to Push The Sky Away in hospital, but always fell asleep before ‘Jubilee Street’. No more than a minute later, Nick Cave is back at his piano, the lights drop, and he plays it for Rob.
After ‘Love Letter’, dedicated to a dad in the audience who spoke of his attempts to settle his baby by singing it over and over, Nick Cave talks again of Leonard Cohen before covering ‘Avalanche’. But, if Nick Cave covering Leonard Cohen wasn’t enough he goes into a stripped back ‘The Mercy Seat’ from earlier album Tender Prey, shortly after taking a question from an audience member who is sat with her daughter, a recovering heroin addict. Cave is open about his own experience but takes time to gently encourage the mother to reflect on her own words – chasms, dark days ahead, and the like. He shares his belief, which may not be universally popular, that heroin needs to be legalised, saying the main reason addicts are marginalised so significantly is because they are seen as criminals rather than just “people who have problems like all of us”.
What happens next is unexpected. Nick Cave does what he has said many, many times, he wouldn’t do. He does Grinderman. For those not familiar, Grinderman was a Bad Seeds side project, one which was necessary to save the Bad Seeds as he felt they were going stale – having written recently about Owl John and Scott Hutchison’s need to step away from Frightened Rabbit in order to save Frightened Rabbit, this is all too familiar. But, we get what I never thought I’d hear: a piano only ‘Palaces of Montezuma’. And I’m lost, needing to use my own accessories as tissues. He follows with ‘Papa Won’t Leave You’, ‘Henry’ and ‘The Weeping Song’, so there’s very little point of trying to keep yourself together anymore.
Nick Cave talks so lovingly about his wife Susie and her locking herself away following Arthur’s death. He speaks of meditation and he speaks of how the possibility of a God allows artists to go beyond the ceiling that atheism puts up. He speaks of living in Germany and meeting ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld and he speaks of his songwriting process – where seemingly random and dispersed lines in his notebook just shimmer towards each other and that when he knows he’s onto something.
Following the stunning ‘Brompton Oratory’ from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, he plays ‘Into My Arms’. Arguably, for many, it is ‘the one’. It’s the funeral song, it’s the wedding song, it’s the one he played for his friend, Michael Hutchence. But, after a further handful of questions from the audience, he ends with one last request; ‘The Ship Song’, which, frighteningly, turns 30 next year.
After nearly three hours of intimate expression and the connectivity Nick Cave said he hoped to explore in these shows, there is a no more perfect way to close an evening that left me intensely empty yet emotionally full.
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around
Words by Lisa Whiteman