Performance Review: Conversations with Nick Cave at the Sydney Opera House

Having Nick Cave look you in the face and throw your question right back at you in front of more than 2,000 people is an exhilarating experience to say the least. It also turns out he really doesn’t like his old song ‘Lay Me Low’ these days.

Photo credit: Kenny Smith

Everything they say about Nick is true, his imposing figure immediately and continuously conducts an intense kind of energy on stage. He channels himself like a theater villain walking and talking among the mortal world.

‘Conversations with Nick Cave’ is an experimental performance format, 2+ hours of unstructured Q/A studded with solo renditions of whatever happens to come up. Naturally it’s going to be very dynamic, people such as myself with ill prepared questions, fluctuations from humor to painful honesty in seconds, crowd favorite songs, fans and Nick getting lost for words, iconic covers,’ Conversations’ delivers it all using so little.

Since the death of his son, Nick is more than ready to explain how cathartic he finds the enhanced connection with the fans, the underlying reason behind his email subscription ‘The Red Hand Files’ and now the ‘Conversations’ tour. But is the show too raw?

Being put so on the spot, many people gravitate back to talking about themselves, which occasionally produced a great moment, but usually it just drags the show on to little benefit, and I think obviously tired Nick early. Then there were others merely relishing the opportunity to talk to him through a thinly veiled or already answered question, Nick is bulletproof in these situations but everyone except the few people asking regret the time not spent on genuine connection and exchange of information. Nick starts the show by stating he considers it an experiment, so I wonder if the format might benefit from some adjustment? Perhaps a few pre-written and pre-selected questions from the crowd might anchor things down a little, and maybe could provide a little more structure to the end of the show, which in our case was 45 minutes shorter than advertised.

Though after my own moment with the microphone its hard to blame others for not asking the questions with the incredible answers we all want to hear. I consider myself relatively comfortable talking in front of a crowd (not that I’ve ever spoken to over 2000 people before), but Nick ruthlessly tore me down in moments for my question that only in hindsight seems a little tedious. It had occurred to me that the song ‘Lay Me Low’ has aged quite differently to all his other songs that are older than I am, and that in recent years he handles the subject of death and mortality much more maturely than how he did in that song, I thought it a good opportunity to ask how he feels about it now. At least it shows my intuition was correct, he very much has moved on from ‘Lay Me Low’, after having to remind him of the subject and tone he called it “dead on the water”, then with clearly nothing else to say about it I think I was the only person that night to be carelessly asked back, “So, how about you?”. I was barely prepared to ask him anything, so it only took me a couple of seconds to choke trying to explain what I thought about the track in terms of the context of my question, I’m glad I at least recognized so and was able to politely admit defeat and pass it on to those with more interesting things to say.

Much of the magic of the show is in how clearly Nick operates entirely on his own merit, still I was surprised to learn in a way how sheltered he seems. Many of his answers seemed to indicate how deeply he lives in his own mind with little influence from the outside world, he was very thrown by a question concerning the recent movement of exposing past indiscretions of those in the entertainment industry and could not name a single example. He explained another factor of this, that he’s in the business of making music, not listening to it. Obviously he is deeply knowledgeable about some music, and has his well known favorites, but says he cannot listen to other people’s music while he is creating, and is totally not up to date with contemporary music at all, naming Bill Callahan’s 8 year old album ‘Apocalypse’ as one of his most recent favorites.

I don’t think I was the only person to get a Nick Cave tattoo the day after the show. One punter scored Nick’s permission to jump onstage and get a signature on his foot, followed by a bonus kiss on the cheek. (Tattoo by Lauren Winzer)

Ultimately for such a dark and imposing figure, he can’t help but be constantly funny, his occasional ruthlessness always offset by it. No matter the nature of the improvised structure, this is always going to be an incredibly engaging and even enchanting show. Asked what song he would want played at his funeral, with no consideration at all he turned back to my direction, to ask “What was that song again?”, I called it out, setting up his response: “Ah yeah – may as well just go out on a real shit song”.