By James Currie
The wildly intense, Australian born, mad crooner, Nick Cave is back, but this time with something quite different and with less ferocity. No band, no instruments (beyond a grand piano), no grand rock show and no bullshit. A stripped down, private, intimate and revealing event that Cave instigated just a short time ago and has now crafted into a full touring event. This is something that just 20 years ago would have never been possible as Cave was in a different spirits and state of mind. Back then it was more about fighting than talking. Today, is a different story, literally.
Dubbed, Conversations With Nick Cave: An Evening of Talk & Music, this is a Nick Cave show like no other. Those attending with the intent of seeing a rock show were in for a big surprise. Not this night. Not this event. Cave made an earlier statement saying, “This is an exercise in connectivity. I Thought that a direct conversation with the audience might be valuable – in the recent live shows we have all shown a kind of willingness to open up.” It’s being described as no subject is sacred and audiences are encouraged to be bold and challenging, confrontational and unafraid. And Chicago fans proved they could live up to the challenge.
The night starts with a simple, but elegant stage set up that included a grand piano up front loaded with sheets of music and notes from Cave’s personal archive. Surrounding the piano are mini cocktail tables with couples at each watching him as if sitting in a theatre in the round, all of which were bathed in a wash of blue light with a center piece table candle. This under Copernicus Center’s ornate theatre façade, made for an almost Grecian temple. At 8pm, Cave walks out, sits down at the piano and kicks off the show with, The Ship Song.
When Cave finishes, he addresses the audience, he explains why this event is taking place and what coming from it. Cave said, “This comes out a thing called, The Red Hand Files. (meet with huge applause) It’s an extension of the Red Hand Files.” He goes on to say, “It seems pretty incredible to think this has been going on for about a year, but it’s become a hugely important part of my life. I get 50 -60 questions a day (on The Red Hand Files) and I read them all, but it seems they get longer and longer and longer. People just seemed to stop asking questions as they were before and just start telling me about themselves.” (audience laughs) “And it’s pretty fucking extraordinary. I have this access to the minds of my audience and it’s an unprecedented thing. There’s been like 13,456 questions and I’ve answered 64 of them.” (more audience laughter) Cave continues, “So I have a lot more to go… but this is some kind of extension of that.” He then calls to audience members walking in late and says, “Come on” and wave’s them down to their seats like a school principal in a class assembly. Cave continues, “So basically when it all gets too difficult (answering the questions) I go and play a song on the piano.” He explains that he wants to hear from the room and challenges us to come up with serious questions he can address. He let us know that he knows how hard it is to stand up in front of people and speak, but asks that we can overcome those fears and do it, it will work. He let the room know that he’s been doing this sort of thing all of his life so it’s pretty easy for him and hopes we can overcome it and have fun with it all.
And Chicago did just that. There was no shortage of people willing to talk. There were people in the audience from far and wide that included a couple people from Poland and another from Brazil. The hall was filled with “minions” holding LED light wands that flashed red, yellow and green standing in the isles waiting for people to raise their hands (effectively giving them a red right hand) and alert Mr. Cave they had a question.
When selected, the audience member was given a microphone (that worked most of the time) and told to ask away. We heard questions about everything from how he began his career to what’s next with new music and script writing as well as digs into his past relationships with girlfriends and former bandmates. We even learned more about his film scoring, acting and writing career. All this and everything in between. But many decided to take the opportunity to express their own personal feelings and wants from Cave.
Lots of shaky voices and even a few tears as several told Cave how important his music was in their life and thanked him for what he’s done. A few others expressed how they had been battling addictions and or depression in their lives and his music helped them through some tough times. One woman got up, staggered to a mic, stumbled on her words and said, “I just wanted to thank you. You just might have saved my life tonight by doing this.” Which was met with mixed response with some “oohing and aaahing” while others seemingly scratching their heads and wondering, how drunk is that girl? She expressed early on that she was fighting addictions, to which Cave asked, “What kind of addictions?” and she stumbled and said, “All of them.” At this point, Cave tried to reason with her, clearly not wanting to dig deeper into her issues and said, “Look, you’ve got a real problem here and need to get help.” This woman was clearly on something at that moment and wasn’t making much sense by the end. This is where the “therapy session” part of the show kicked in. Taking things from lighthearted fun to a darker serious matter that clearly couldn’t be resolved on the spot.
Nick Cave repeated this pattern of this back and forth conversations interspliced with music for nearly three hours. Discussing topics fans wanted to know about and issues they were having. But it wasn’t just about them. Cave himself has been fighting demons off and on for many years of his life too saying, “Since the death of my son, things changed dramatically in my life. Nothing is the same.” He continued to talk about his addictions saying, “I was addicted to drugs and alcohol for twenty years of my life. I was a different person then. This kind of thing would have never happened back then. Instead of me trying to listen and console you, I’d be trying to rip off your head.” (laughter). “These are all reasons why this is happening.” It was becoming clear, this was something more than just a forum for him to receive praise and adoration (something he unabashedly loves and welcomes from fans), but a healing tool as well.
The musical highlights came from the breaks in the discussions. He darted in and out of conversations taking to the piano and crooning out songs like, Higgs Boson Blues, Into My Arms and even a cover song that he explained truly set him on his path to becoming a singer songwriter, Avalanche, by one of his earliest influences, Leonard Cohen. Cave said, “When I was about 13 or so, maybe a little later, I heard this man, this song and it made a huge impact. To me, Leonard Cohen was the one that stuck with me.” He said that the song was the turning point in his life for the career he was in then sat down and played the song with strong love and devotion. Which makes sense since Cave is often compared to Cohen.
Cave’s performance was right on point this night. It felt like we were all gathered around his piano at home, just shooting the shit, while he played for us. A private party of sorts. When he played, he played with the same passion and veracity he does with any of his projects. Just because this was a stripped-down solo show didn’t mean it would be a shell of a performance. You could see and hear it when he played this was equally as important with every hammer of the keys and fluctuating cadence in his voice.
As the night progressed, we continued to learned more about Nick Cave. We learned about how Cave started out in the arts wanting to be a painter, but that didn’t pan out how he wanted, so his passion for music took over. After a fan spoke out about how much she loved painting, she wanted to know what his passion in the arts, other than the obvious, was. Cave said, “I like to write and compose. I mean, that’s what I do. I don’t paint anymore. When I’m home and it’s time to go to work, I get up, get on a suit, go into the other room and write down a sentence or two that stands out to me. I don’t go into a song knowing how it’s going to come out. It’s kind of magical really. I literally see words kind of shimmer as they form and I know it’s going to work.”
Some audience members took this forum serious in the questions they asked and others not so much. It seems that a few took this time to get a hug or something autographed like a tattoo or book. Cave, open to anything as he stated from the beginning, obliged even though you could tell it wasn’t quite the interactions he was hoping for.
Fans, who seem to average 45-55 years in age, kept the Q&A going long into the evening. One of the shocking things we learned from this crowd, is that several of his fans seemed to be troubled or distraught women who looked to his lyrics for influence and answers. Many expressed how they have been listening to him since they were young girls and how his words helped them cope with a variety of issues in their lives. He has a strong goth, punk and alternative following that matches his lustrous and varied career like he tries to do with each album and project, keep things fresh and different. Each of those genres represented tonight in their many aspects. These are lifetime fans who have been following him since The Birthday Party days, through The Bad Seeds and various solo projects. Everyone had a story to tell on when and where they heard his music and what influence it had on their life. This group collectively has a respected passion and tie to Cave that is clearly deeper than just being a fan of his music and from the conversations we got, it shows.
The biggest highlight of the night was at the very end. A woman with pink hair named Heather stood up and told how this was supposed to be a special night for her and her husband as they drove from out of state to be there. The problem was, their night was ruined by others around her that would not be quite during the performance (actually something that is becoming more prevalent at concerts these past few years). Not just that, but that those others around her told her to “fuck off”. Clearly she was distraught, Cave responded. He asked her to come up on stage with him. She did and they sat together at the piano while he played Stagger Lee, which he dedicated to her. This was a warm, personal touch that Nick Cave was clearly trying to get from all this. The connection with his fans he can’t get through the Red Hand Files. Although he got a little flustered and messed up playing the song at the beginning, he turned to her and said, “You’ve got to stop crying so we can get through this.” And, “You’re making me nervous.” (met with more laughter breaking the tension in the air) He soon gathered his thoughts and resumed not only making her night, but the house as well as this was one song everyone wanted to hear live. For Heather, it was sweet gold.
Just before 11PM, Cave wrapped things up and thanked the audience for their participation.
For more on this intimate tour, including other city dates, click here
For more on the Red Hand Files, click here