This is an email I sent to my friend Sue, a fellow Nick Cave fan, to report on his recent live streamed, socially distanced concert experience, “Idiot Prayer: Alone at Alexandra Palace,” filmed recently in London. I’ve left in the personal references, and anyone who doesn’t already have an appreciation for Nick Cave might not have an appreciation for this blog entry, but I encourage the interested and curious music lovers among you to check out some of the work of this modern-day genius, which is cited throughout.
Amidst an “I’m a technological disaster!!” panic attack, I wasn’t able to get the concert to stream on my big-screen HDTV, but it might have been just as well. The experience on my 15-inch laptop screen was amazing in that I could get so CLOSE – and really, that was a huge appeal of this format, the NEARNESS of it. So many times we’ve gone to concerts and shows of his where he was SO DAMN FAR AWAY that you lose facial expressions and lyrics. But this live-stream experience, “Idiot Prayer: Alone at Alexandra Palace,” was something else entirely (well, it was sort of a live-stream – I didn’t manage to log in right at 10 p.m., when it was scheduled to start, but I was able to join in on a delay, so I didn’t miss a moment) – just the magnificent Nick Cave and a Fazioli grand piano so glossy that it reflected the hammers on the strings inside the piano as if they were in the back of the music stand, so you could see them as you were watching Nick from the front, a kind of weird optical illusion that caught my visual attention.
As he’s walking into this cavernous room, otherwise empty but for the piano and some microphones (and some kind of lightning out of frame, used to great effect throughout, illuminating eerie dust motes sweeping into every light source), he narrates the lyrics to “Spinning Song” (from his latest album, Ghosteen (2019)). Then he sits at the piano and just dives in, with the names of the songs coming up on the screen in between but no more narration from him – just his deep, dark and dense lyrics, clear and crisp and every word understandable, another benefit of the closeness and the spareness of just a boy and his piano.
The camera gets very, VERY close to Nick, as well. His skin is remarkably clear for a 60-something year old man, and he has a scar in the middle of his left cheek that could have been from a knife. He wore rings on all four of the fingers of his left hand (I could never glimpse enough of his left thumb to see if he had one on there as well, but he may have), and his ring finger had at least three. His nostrils are cavernous holes. He’s got a prominent nose that overbalances his weak chin, a face ripe for caricature. His eyes, when he looks straight at the camera, are blue and galactic, his skin pale, set off by his jet-black, slicked back hair.
He would submerge into each song, focused, feeling it viscerally. He rarely smiled, but once, as he finished a song (I think it was “He Wants You”) he gave a little laugh.
So here’s the set list, with my comments throughout. Many of these songs we know pretty well from concerts and films and album listening over the years. I actually own every one of his CDs from Henry’s Dream (1992) on, but there were quite a few albums before that, dating back to 1984. (I own all of them except for Murder Ballads (1996), that is, which YOU actually had recorded on cassette for me – that album featured that otherworldly duet he does with his buddy Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Are”. But alas, the cassette was lost to the flood.) He also has another assemblage of musicians that he performs with called Grinderman that I actually know very little about. I only have one of Grinderman’s songs on my iPod and I don’t even like it that much. (I think it might have been from a “Free iTunes” compilation. Remember those? I loved those! I got a lot of free, interesting music from those iTunes collections – Amazon had them, too, free samplers from some up-and-coming labels. But now Apple and Amazon are too obscenely mercenary to actually share new music, for free and for KEEPS, with us dinosaurs who still need to own hard copies of their music.) But given that two of the songs in the set that I didn’t previously know (or know well) but liked very much were from the two Grinderman albums, I definitely need to explore further. From what I understand, Grinderman is basically the Bad Seeds without my beloved Blixa Bargeld and some of the other members from the various Bad Seed incarnations. But I’m not as familiar with that catalogue as I need to be.
- “Idiot Prayer” (The Boatman’s Call (1997)) – A solid start, as is his wont. [A note about Boatman’s Call: This is my favorite Nick Cave album, and it also seems to be one of his, because he plays a lot of these songs at a lot of shows, including this one. I remember when he played “West Country Girl” when we saw – well, HEARD – him at Prospect Park, which is a song that always makes me think of you, for some reason. That’s from that album as well.]
- “Sad Waters” (Your Funeral . . . My Trial (1986)) – From an earlier album that pre-dates my collection. I really liked this song. It was the first time I remember hearing him perform it.
- “Brompton Oratory” (Boatman’s Call) – Another gorgeous song from that album that he plays a lot.
- “Palaces of Montezuma” (Grinderman (2010)) – I liked this song quite a lot. I think I’ve heard him play it before but didn’t realize it was a Grinderman song.
- “Girl In Amber” (Skeleton Tree (2016))
- “Man In the Moon” (Grinderman (2007)) – Another Grinderman song that I had never heard before and liked very much. The lyrics were particularly lovely.
- “Nobody’s Baby Now” (Let Love In (1994)) – My first Nick Cave album!! Cover art makes him look a little like David Bowie from his Aladdin Sane phase. I believe Nick counts Bowie among his influences but Nick is NOT on the Periodic Table of Bowie. I think he probably should be.
- “(Are You) the One I’ve Been Waiting For” (Boatman’s Call) – Another of Nick’s gorgeous, plaintive love songs.
- “Waiting for You” (Ghosteen) – Utterly heartbreaking song. I wept the first time I heard it. He did a nice version here, his voice cracking on the high notes (as it should).
- “Mercy Seat” (Tender Prey (1988)) – An interesting thing happened at this point in the program. As happens sometimes when you have a solo acoustic set, on guitar or piano, an artist runs the risk of a repetitive, kind of low-key tempo throughout the set. It makes the listener a little sleepy, I think. In order to keep the intimate feel but increase the tempo, Nick at this stage in the show sneaks in a few of the songs that would maybe benefit from the power of the Bad Seeds behind him. You’d think at first that he can’t do a piano-only, gradually building lava flow crescendo of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth . . . “ BUT HE CAN. He pounds the piano and makes it ring like there’s a whole orchestra (well, a SMALL orchestra) behind him.
- “Euthanasia” – This is evidently a brand new song that he debuted tonight (which I didn’t know at the time). It was kind of oddly incomplete, I think, not fully formed, but there were some thought-provoking moments. Typical Nick. I need to hear it again, though.
- “Jubilee Street” (Push the Sky Away (2013)) – Another of those “tough” songs where Nick beats on the keys to make up for the absence of Warren Ellis and a backing band. But I liked this version because I could hear every lyric and absorb every unsettling image.
- “Far From Me” (Boatman’s Call)
- “He Wants You” (Nocturama (2003)) – One of my favorite songs, and it sounded really nice in this performance.
- “Higgs Boson Blues” (Push the Sky Away) – I have to admit, this is probably my least favorite of his songs most nights, and the same went for tonight. The ONLY clunker. He could have done any number of other songs – he did NOTHING from Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! or the Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus double album, and there’s a lot of sublime music on those three disks. “Hold on to Yourself” from Lazarus would have sounded ideal in this slot, and he could have even pummeled the dark end of the piano a little. But Nick clearly has his favorites, and this is one of them.
- “Stranger than Kindness” (Your Funeral . . . My Trial) (Great album title, by the way – surprised “Mercy Seat” isn’t on that one.) – Didn’t know this song, either, but it was actually NOT written by Nick but by Blixa and a woman named Anita Lane. I actually remember reading about her in that graphic novel you gave me a couple of birthdays ago. [Reinhard Kleist, Nick Cave, Mercy on Me (2017)
- “Into My Arms” (Boatman’s Call) – Classic love song, one of my favorites of his. If I ever met a man who would specifically request this song to be played at his wedding, I would marry him!! (Well, I’d WANT to, anyway . . . )
- “The Ship Song” (The Good Son (1990)) – Love this song. There’s an adorably joyful video for this tune from back in the day! [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0spQCw35D4]
- “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” (Henry’s Dream) – Another opportunity for a piano-pounder, the last of the night. A golden oldie that we don’t hear from him too often.
- “Black Hair” (Boatman’s Call) – Last one from that fine, fine album. He loves this song, too.
- “Galleon Ship” (Ghosteen) –A heartfelt finale, kind of book-ending from the opening lines of the show.
After that, he pushes back his bench, surrounded by the sheet music he’s discarded on the floor around his feet as he was done with them, gets up and strides into the dust mites of an open doorway.
A beautiful show. Yet another way to experience Nick. He really has to be one of my favorite human beings on the planet.
A section of my bulletin board, on which Nick features prominently.