The highlight of Pop Montreal was “In Conversation” with the legendary Nick Cave : musician, author, Grammy winning film score composer, screenwriter and Renaissance Man. The Dark Prince of Pop rose to notoriety with the punk bands The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party. He formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1983. Nick had chart success with his murderous duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue. Recently he returned to his punk noise roots with the glorious shambolic chaos of Grinderman.

   

If unfamiliar with his work, imagine if Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen had a baby. The child was reared in Australia on a steady diet of John Milton, Baudelaire, Elvis, the Bible, murder ballads and heroin. Then came of age during the punk rock era. His lyrics resonate with dark poetic beauty. A tortured soul’s yearning for connection is gracefully weaved through sordid tales of murderers, criminals and misfits. He describes his musical style as “Sad Bastard Music“. In his own words:

“Songwriting is about counterpoint. Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly. Like letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something, and just sitting back and seeing what happens. Then you send in a clown, say, on a tricycle and again you wait and you watch. And if that doesn’t do it, you shoot the clown.”

Photo by Kathy Slamen Photography

The setting for the concert could not have been more perfectly chosen: the magnificent cathedral St Jean Baptiste on Rachel street. He performed solo on the piano and in between songs took questions from the audience. Completely unmoderated and uncensored. The tour grew out of his new project The Red Hand Files, a website forum where fans can write questions to him. He receives about 60 questions per day, over 30,000 letters so far. To date, he has taken the time to answer 64 of them.

He describes the project in the concert’s program as such:

The Bad Seeds are a bombastic concert experience. With his band, Nick rarely plays piano for more than 30 seconds here or there so he can focus on singing. The audience was feverishly excited to see a stripped down intimate solo performance. To finally get a chance to hear him tickle the ivories backed up by the acoustics of an exquisite cathedral.

He opened with “The Ship Song” before taking some questions. One of the first questions asked was about his connection to Montreal. He described growing up in a small village in Australia, feeling angry and alienated. At age 14 he heard Leonard Cohen’sSong of Love and Hate” and suddenly his confusing emotions began to make sense. He no longer felt alone. In a moving tribute, he performed a cover of “Avalanche” just a few blocks away from Leonard’s house.

Later he paid homage to the recently deceased Daniel Johnston with an acapella cover of “Devil Town“. Then eulogized Rowland S Howard by performing “Shivers” from their first band together The Boys Next Door.

Nick Cave & Rowland S. Howard in the early 1980s

Nick Cave fans are nothing if not a tad obsessive with an urgent need to connect with him. They revealed their encyclopediac knowledge of his career, asking about his writing process, the meaning of certain songs and to confirm or deny tall tales that are told about him. “Was it true that you refuse to perform in Vancouver because someone once threw a shoe at you?”. He replied no, chuckling that in Glasgow he was pissed on from the balcony and yet he still performs there.

His hilarious responses had us feeling privileged to be granted access to his intimate thoughts and anecdotes. To go behind the curtain and meet the man behind the music. Eminently quotable, he delivered this gem about fellow Australian rocker Michael Hutchence of INXS :

We were worlds apart musically but great friends. I envied his success, he envied my credibility

At times it felt like a therapy session, where fans thanked him profusely for how his music helped them through dark tormented times. Which had me wondering exactly how many of us in the audience led lives that were shattered by gruesome violent tragedy. Unfortunately these beautiful shared moments of catharsis were sometimes interrupted when the audience’s questions manifested in tactless ways.

He was asked about the tragic death of his son by someone saying “Where do you think your son is now?“. The inquiry could easily have been respectfully phrased “Do you believe in the Afterlife?“, leaving him the option to discuss his personal grief or not. We mustn’t forget that this icon that seems larger than life is still a man with human emotions and a right to privacy.

He amusingly described to us that during his third stint in rehab, he could only leave the facility to go to church. It was there that he wrote “Into My Arms” about his breakup with PJ Harvey. You could hear a pin drop as he sang this poetic plea for help to an interventionist God that he doesn’t actually believe in.

Photo by Kathy Slamen Photography

A low point occurred when a woman seemed to be trying to create reality TV style conflict, gossiping that his ex band mate Mick Harvey was talking trash about him. Oblivious to the audience’s hostile mood, she continued to name drop her personal experiences with his band. She even had the gall to ask a second question that turned into an act of shameless self promotion for her own musical career.

To his credit, Nick was grace, class and wit personified. Answering every question with warmth, empathy, gravitas and humour. When a man cluelessly asked to be serenaded with “Happy Birthday” and the crowd bristled, Nick gently admonished us that it takes guts to ask a question. We should be kind and non judgmental. Then joked that he was going to throw a shoe at the birthday boy.

The mood lifted when he was queried about his iconic sense of style and impeccably tailored suits. The fan asked “When writing songs at home are you lounging around in boxer shorts and a T-shirt?”. Laughing, he replied that he wears a suit every day, he feels more comfortable dressed like that. He assured us that he didn’t write any of his darkly poetic songs while wearing cargo shorts!

Which led us to a mind blowing performance of “The Mercy Seat“, a frenzied tale of a murderer on death row burning on the electric chair. Ruminating about justice in the final moments before his soul is finally freed from its shackles. Coming to terms with the fact that despite his protests, he is not innocent. Nick mentioned that one of the proudest moments in his career was Johnny Cash recording a cover version of this anthem. Lyrically it is one of Cave’s finest works :

Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries
To enter the bright eye
I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile
And anyway I never lied.

My kill-hand is called E.V.I.L.
Wears a wedding band that’s G.O.O.D.
‘Tis a long-suffering shackle
Collaring all that rebel blood.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.”

Photo by Kathy Sleman Photography

When he announced his final round of songs, we were treated to my favorite moments of the concert. The audience loudly requested “God is in the House“. Given our surroundings in this magnificent cathedral, it was the perfect choice. He referenced his earlier tales about rehab, delivering another of his brilliant lyrics :

Well-meaning little therapists.
Goose-stepping twelve-stepping
Tetotalitarianists

Earlier in the show he was asked if was an Artist of Transgression or an Artist of Memory. He pondered the question and replied he was both, but also an Artist of Yearning. He promised us that as a Transgressive Artist he could not resist the temptation to perform the raw and offensive “Stagger Lee” on holy ground.

True to his word, for the final song of the night he brought the house down with his revamp of this murder ballad about a dark Christmas Day in St Louis in 1895 that descended into murder and rape. Nick Cave has the unique ability to turn dark subjects into a joyful shared experience. We felt like ecstatic little sinners, merrily dancing to the music of the Pied Piper as Death swirled around us….

Set List :

The Ship Song,
The Weeping Song
Avalanche (Leonard Cohen)
Into My Arms
Jubilee Street
Papa Won’t Leave You Henry
Devil Town (Daniel Johnston)
The Mercy Seat
Palaces of Montezuma (Grinderman)
Girl in Amber
Shivers (The Boys Next Door)
O Children
God is in the House
Where is the Playground Susie (Glen Campbell)
Stagger Lee

Thank you to Pop Montreal for booking this concert. Given that the show sold out in one hour over a year ago, I offer my sincere gratitude to Dan Webster and Evenko for graciously providing me with a ticket!

Find out more about how Pop Montreal started by one of its founders.