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That's The Deal: The Emotional Pact Nick Cave Makes With His Audience

Wednesday, 30 October 2019 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Matthew Thorne

Glastonbury, 2013.

Nick Cave feels compelled to meet his public.

Stepping from the stage onto the shoulders of the Pyramid Stage crowd, he brings Stagger Lee to life 10 or so feet off the ground as hands clamour for him. 

A few minutes into his walkabout, as the song simmers, he exclaims: “Well in come the devil, got a pitchfork in his hand.” As though propelled from the abyss, a young woman with a shock of red hair appears from the crowd. 

Dressed in white, bobbing above the throng, she reaches out for Cave. He takes her hand. The following minutes are intense. Cave and the woman are locked together—she stares at him and won’t let go. He stares right back. 

The music becomes increasingly fraught and thoughts begin to pile up: 

Is this woman the devil? 

I mean...maybe? 

And, most importantly: 

How good are Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds?

There is tremendous power behind this performance, stemming from Cave’s magnetism and welling up in his band, who play with a sort of deadpan menace. But there is a sense that we are seeing only some of the emotional depths to which they are capable of travelling.

In recent years, of course, we have become all too aware of those recesses. Following the death of his son, Arthur, in 2015 Cave’s music has had a terrible weight to bear. The empathy and compassion that he has long secreted throughout his work, though, has in turn given it broad shoulders.

With his ‘Skeleton Tree’ album and more recently the sprawling, immensely compelling ‘Ghosteen’, plus the film One More Time With Feeling, Cave has shown us some of the faces worn by grief. He has never been glib or sentimental, and he hasn’t tried to offer easy answers. 

He’s told us something that hews close to the truth as we can understand it: it’s complicated, and no single element of it is a straightforward fix. “I don't believe in an interventionist God, but I know, darling, that you do.” Isn’t that how it went?

“It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal,” Cave wrote to a fan seeking help with her own losses late last year. “Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves.” 

These recent records aren’t roadmaps, they’re that hand reaching out. There are no promises other than a space to figure things out in our own time. Live, this equates to a powerful exchange of emotional capital. We aren’t able to pause or skip a song at an arena—we must face it all alongside Cave and his band. 

But that also means that things have changed—this openness has not always been an element of Cave’s live show. His recent Conversations tour, which fused solo piano performances with questions from the audience, took a left turn that had only been hinted at by his Red Hand Files newsletters. 

Where once there was impenetrable mystery, Kohl-eyed cool and feverish sermons about impending doom, now there was a sort of open dialogue. Cave had already begun inviting fans on stage to sing at earlier concerts (!) but this was another step into a future that he appeared to be figuring out in real time.

“Coming out of punk rock, I had an adversarial, conflicted relationship with my audience, especially in the early days,” Cave said in response to a New York fan who had asked why he had undertaken the Conversations run. “But after my son died I got an incredible amount of mail from people writing to me with similar experiences. I felt connected to them. I felt like we were suffering together.”

By discussing his life, and his struggle to remain creative amid the maelstrom, Cave has helped others. We might not be rock stars, but we too have to function while our own lives go sideways. Finding solace in a song is a tale as old as time and, if nothing else, we respect those whose art has moved or sustained us: their words can mean more to us than anything. 

Nick Cave understands that. 

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat May 02 2020 - BIRMINGHAM Arena Birmingham
Sun May 03 2020 - CARDIFF Motorpoint Arena Cardiff
Tue May 05 2020 - GLASGOW SSE Hydro
Wed May 06 2020 - MANCHESTER Arena
Fri May 08 2020 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Sat May 09 2020 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Tue May 12 2020 - LEEDS first direct Arena
Thu May 14 2020 - LONDON O2
Fri May 15 2020 - LONDON O2

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