I became a Nick Cave fan through, weirdly enough, Metallica. When I was getting into metal I never had anyone around to offer sage advice and lend me CDs, so I would discover new bands by looking in the liner notes of my CDs – I figured the musicians who influences bands I love would probably be bands I’d also love. On the Garage Inc. album, Metallica covered the Bad Seeds’ “Loverman”, and I always loved the way Hetfield drawled out those filthy, sexy lyrics, so I downloaded Let Love In on KazAa and became obsessed.
There are artists you listen to because they are fun, because they lift you up and put you in a good mood. For me, these are metal bands like Korpiklaani, Blind Guardian, and Alestorm. And then there are musicians who reach inside your chest and wrap themselves around your soul, and that’s Nick Cave. When I hear his music, I feel like he’s speaking stories from my life and lives I might once have lived. I am experiencing the words of the finest poets set to musical score, that all the emotions of human experience are strewn across his catelogue. Nick Cave is what I listen to while I’m editing my books, because if I can create a piece of art that is one-thousandth as haunting and relatable and mesmerising as his music, then I have achieved what I set out to do in life.
In 2004 I got to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the St. James. Theatre in Auckland on the Abbotoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus tour, and it is probably the best concert I’d attended at that point. The crowd was a strange mix: 1/3 willowy Goths, 1/3 old people, 1/3 drunk, loud metalheads. The whole band has incredible energy on stage; Nick lurches over the crowd, creeping across the very lip of the stage, touching outstretched hands and accepting flowers from goth girls in the front (I was in the front, but I didn’t have a flower. He did hold my hand during “Babe, You Turn Me On,” and I died and went to Valhalla, though.)
Ten years later, Nick Cave announces two solo shows at the Civic Theatre in Auckland, and they sell out in a day. My friend Sam decides she wants to go with me (at her own peril, knowing how much of a fangirl I am). After spending two days getting schooled at The Blogcademy (more on that in an upcoming post), we head down to the theatre to get inside before the show starts (at 8:30 on the dot, with no opening band. For an Aussie, Cave is extremely punctual.)
We took our seats. The lights dimmed. A deep chord from the piano thundered through the theatre. A flute trilled. “Who took your measurements from your toes to the top of your head?” That deep, sensual voice burrowed right into my chest, and I am utterly mesmerised.
This was a very different show to the one I saw ten years ago. For one, it was seated – in the most spectacular theatre in Auckland. It was also a solo show, although Nick had a few of the Bad Seeds accompanying him: Warren Ellis (guitar/violin/flute), Barry Adamson (keyboards), Martyn P Casey (bass) and Thomas Wydler (drums). The setlist contains not so many of the big Bad Seeds anthems, not so many of the Abbotoir Blues gospel tunes, but many of the subtle, contemplative songs from his latest album, Push the Sky Away, all foggy soundscapes and rich, textured melodies.
While in 2004, Cave spoke barely 3 words to the audience, here he banters back and forth, asking us to call out songs, saying he “might play that … later.” One male fan called out, “Babe, You Turn Me On!” and Cave wryly replied, “Why, thank you.”
The show is lit intimately, and because of the acoustics of the theatre, you can hear every conversation, every comment yelled at the stage, every note rings crystal clear. When Cave swaggers across the front of the stage, punctuating every lyric with trusted fingers, his shadow looms up on the walls of the stage. He is a monster, a towering praying mantis crawling through your skin. God, but it’s sexy as all hell.
“The Weeping Song”, which was second in the set, played with full, rounded notes by Cave on piano. A stunning solo from Ellis on “Mermaids”, and an arousing rendition of “Higgs-Boson Blues”. One of the highlights for me was the haunting, pared-back and slowed-down version of “The Mercy Seat”, the tale of a man on death row, sung by Cave on piano with no accompaniment, that left you utterly bereft with its final, damning lyrics. It astounds me that a musician who has played those songs thousands of times before could still perform each one with such brutal, unbridled emotion. After each song he tosses his lyric sheets in the air and slams his microphone down, as if with his last burst of energy he must thrust the song completely away from him.
Cave howls his way through “From Her to Eternity”, the title track from the 1984 debut album under his own name, while Ellis’ violin feedback gives the song a gritty, unrestrained edge. “Black Hair”, from the Boatman’s Call about Cave’s affair with PJ Harvey, was probably his most stunning vocal performance of the night – raw and emotive and dirgelike. Then, later, “The Ship Song”, a song that always elicits a strong emotional response, performed with such delicate tenderness that I was in tears after the first chorus.
When Cave is not behind the piano, pummelling the keys as his voice rumbles through the notes, he’s leering over the front of the stage, all spindly mantis limbs , long fingers reaching out into the audience, grasping for that connection. At the six-song encore, Sam and I rushed down to the front, and I got to stand again inches from one of my artistic heroes while he performed the haunting, ghostly finale – “Push the Sky Away”.
Thank you, Nick Cave, thank you, and again.
Photograph from Stella Gardiner, Under the Radar.