Culture / Music

“He turns tiny moments into Greek Tragedy” – musician Jack Ladder reviews Nick Cave’s Sydney show

If I had .003 cents for every time someone compared me to Nick Cave I would have more money than my annual Spotify royalty check, which is not very much except to say that he has been a source of great torment and inspiration for as long as I can remember, for so long now that if someone asked me what my music sounded like I’d probably just say Nick Cave to make it easy for both of us. This would cause me to shrink a little inside defeatedly – then puff out with pride because who else would I rather sound like? Michael fucking Bublè?!

Agreeing to review this concert has forced me to consider his influence on my life and brought to the surface a deep buried memory. As a teenager I found a CD single of Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For in my older brothers bedroom and began listening to it very quietly in secret like it was some exotic porno mag, turning it off if anyone came too close to my room. I wasn’t sure what it was yet but it had its hooks in me. Until that point romance was Blink 182 and a stolen 6-pack of beer in the sand dunes. Things changed after that.

It pains me to say it but I have him to thank for opening up a new world of music, the underworld. The culmination of “good music” or what’s left of it – he swallowed it all – Johnny Cash, Scott Walker, Nina Simone, Elvis Presley, Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, Suicide, Serge Gainsbourg and Glen Campbell – and regurgitated it in grotesque and absurd ways, bringing beauty to kitsch and dark menace to beauty. For me this is his gift.

I’ve wrestled with the creative roadblocks he’s thrown up at me as he goes about his territorial pissing – I see the markings on the buildings. I can’t go there anymore, Nick Cave owns that part of town – forcing me to move to the outer suburbs of synth pop and soft rock. But like some property developer in a gentrifying city he keeps expanding his reach, his greasy black tendrils over everything. How far do I have to run to escape? Screw this I say, I’m moving back to the centre of town and he’ll have to deal with me.

To talk of Nick Cave’s campaign to become the poet laureate of the greater known universe over the last 20 years is to witness an artistic hairline receding forwards from his mustached 50’s into his embalmed and grief ridden 60’s, frozen in time, The Man in Black Amber. He is now approximating the God he has spent his career writing about. He is an authority on grief, on love, on creativity. An online Gothic Buddha. I’m taking notice but I’m taking it with large grains of Brighton sea salt. At times it feels like his ambition has overtaken his ability and tonight is his reckoning. He will have to face my cruel judgement. My sword of Damocles hangs above the stool at his grand piano. Is it a Fazioli? I don’t care. I will decide who lives and dies. I am the critic tonight.

The first night of his sold out five show run at the historic State Theatre in Sydney is brimming with boomers in band shirts. The first thing I notice is his merch stall looks lazy. They’re selling generic Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds T-shirts. A hoodie for one hundred dollars! I thought this was a solo show. What?! He has a pink T-shirt. I was going to do a pink T-shirt. This is suspicious. He must’ve known.

On the marquee outside his name is in lights sharing the billing with Colin Greenwood of Radiohead which I thought was a generous thing for him to do. Maybe they just need to fill the thing up with letters as there is no support act. He couldn’t handle me anyway.

I forget how gaudy this place is. The statues with their togas falling down below their waists revealing a little too much skin standing next to the popcorn machine. A Sydney spin on ancient Rome.

They’re calling us on the PA to take our seats in the “The Palace of Dreams” and we file in. Turns out we have very good seats in the front stalls. I’ve never been so close for a show at the State Theatre. This will be like the time I stood in the front row for Lou Reed. He’ll be able to see me. He will feel my presence.

The crowd is restless. People take selfies in front of his vacant piano. He’s late. Of course he’s late. He’s grooming, he’s pacing, he’s stretching out his stiff fingers. He’s pointing at himself in the mirror, practicing his jazz hands and his leap from the piano stool to receive his applause. He’s reminding himself that he’s still got it. That he’s better than Jack Ladder and always will be. He’s laughing at me.

Lights go down. Colin hits the stage first in a black suit with white shirt looking like a baby Bad Seed to a smattering of applause. Then Nick in his tailored suit and tie, his perfect black hair slicked back bursts on stage – the crowd erupts. It’s hard to believe that he’s actually there. He waves and gesticulates and blows kisses. He is an entertainer. He makes love to the room. This is what he does for a living. He sits down promptly at the piano and begins a minor chord dirge. The mood is instantly transformed. We are in his world. He opens his mouth and that voice comes out. It booms with a little croak. Maybe he hasn’t been warming up. Maybe he’s come straight from dinner. Does he eat?! The song isn’t a classic hit. It’s Girl in Amber from Skeleton Tree. He’s letting us know who’s in control and that he will play what he likes regardless of the ticket price.

The song ends and he jumps up from the piano stool to receive his applause with a microphone on a pacing length lead. He wants to tell us about the new Bad Seeds record. He says it’s really good. Really really good. He says the Bad Seeds will come next year to play it. What?! He’s already spruiking tickets to his next show after one song. This guy is unbelievable. He is a salesman managing expectations. He knows that what’s he’s doing tonight might not land but he does it anyway. He is opening up these songs to the public to find new meaning in them, to see what they reveal. He is making a living and we’re here for it.

He introduces Higgs Boson Blues. He says it’s about the God Particle and driving down to Geneva. He begins the song “I’m driving my car down to Geneva.” I love it when the description is the first lines of the song. I wonder if he does that as a joke. For his lifetime of experience he is not a great piano player but I can tell he’s been working on his left-hand technique. He’s trying to hold rhythm and separate the bass notes out. Colin faces him and tries to hold time. They are in time together. Colin’s bass doesn’t sound like much. I imagined he’d be laying down the groove and Nick would be playing along but it’s the other way around. The lyrics to this song are acrobatic and silly. It doesn’t hold much emotional weight for me. Why is he singing about Hannah Montana / Miley Cyrus. Feels desperate like Dylan name checking Alicia Keys. The image is ugly when her name comes out of his mouth but he sells it. Song croaks to a halt. Can’t remember anything at all… lights come down.

Next up is a song I never paid much attention to from Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! Jesus of The Moon. I don’t think I’ll listen to it again. It’s hard to know what he’s getting at in the song even after inspecting the lyrics later. Lonely guy living in a hotel says hello to people on the streets. I’m confused at this point why he would bother revisiting this song. It’s another Dylan move. Hit ‘em with the sleepers.

Now we’re onto Galleon Ship from Ghosteen. It’s a beautiful melody. His piano playing is coming into it’s own. His hands are warming up. You can tell he loves to play the changes. He lives inside this. As the city rises up. It’s sentimental but what he’s reaching for is the divine. I get it when he goes straight for beauty. I’m softening.

He takes time to describe the “walk of shame” process when he performs a song for the first time in the studio for The Bad Seeds and they are unmoved. I relate. There’s nothing more humbling than receiving the indifference of band mates with a burning barometer for what’s what. He jokes they’re all fired and Colin is next then performs the song no one liked. I tend to agree with the band. At the end he says it’s called Euthanasia. Again, he’s coming after my turf. My song Susan is about euthanasia. He better back off. Lucky it’s not on a record. I can’t even find the lyrics on his website.

Next is a trilogy of weepers. O Children followed by self described “sad song” I Need You, then Waiting For You for his wife Suzie who is standing behind him side of stage. It’s hard not to be moved by these songs. I try to hold back but as the lights go out on I Need You and he’s whipped himself into one of his manic frenzies whispering “breathe just breathe just breathe just breathe ” it’s heart busting and I break. He turns tiny moments into Greek Tragedy. He is a drama queen on his grand piano. He’s making me feel things I’m not prepared to feel.

Now he’s talking about rocking his son to sleep in Brazil 30 years ago. His son has just had a son. He is now a grandfather. The song he wrote while rocking his son to sleep is Papa Won’t Leave You Henry. I laugh at the absurdity of this. No one else is laughing. He starts the song and it’s all blood and sweat and bones and booze. This is where his bread is buttered. This is what he does. Inside a song like this there is a fever. The way the words churn and mangle. His new songs have a lightness and a self consciousness that is hard to connect to. A song like this is a wild cat that he’s boxed up and he can still let it out when he wants. He’s possessed now. God I hope he’s going to do more of this. I can’t breathe.

But no, we’re back with some light hearted crowd participation. He wants the the people in the balcony to cheer when he says “balcony”. He’s playing Balcony Man from Carnage, a COVID era floater. People love it and he loves it and it helps to break the mood. He has a few false starts on Carnage the song and says they rarely get inside this one and I’m not sure if they do tonight either.

Then Colin creeps into the shadows and Nick starts pummelling away on the Mercy Seat. If there was a song that I thought needed accompaniment this was it but he’s taking this one for a solo ride and puts the pedal on the floor. He is flying. He is hammering. This is serious shit. He says this song is ancient but it feels to me like it’s hot off the press. He has lived this and he’s time travelling and spirit walking. He’s afraid he told a lie. I’m sure he’s told many lies. We all have. He’s got his hands around my neck choking me out. He needs to back off or I’m going to take a blunt object to his skull. Then he leaps off his stool and throws his hand in the air like Mick Jagger practicing his dance moves alone in the basement. He is constantly offsetting the tension with vaudeville stage craft. He can’t help himself.

One thing that’s interesting to me is how happy he is on stage. He’s not leering and arrogant anymore, he’s a grandfather after all, and he lets us know he’s going to play a song for his dear old friend and Melbourne underground hero Anita Lane. She wrote the lyrics and Blixa wrote the music. He sings Stranger Than Kindness. The song is humbling to him. You can tell the lyrics are written by a woman. They are nuanced and poetic and talk of small details in a way that his songs rarely do. It’s sly and painful and he is aware of what he’s done. Singing as penance. This is his due diligence. He is the last man standing and keeper of the flame.

Next he speeds through Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For and can barely hold onto the sentiment but we get the idea. We’ve heard it before. He throws the lyric sheet on the ground beside him. They’re piling up now. He whips out The Weeping Song and lashes it around and Colin steps back into the shadows again. He let’s the crowd know they can sing along to the next one and Into My Arms is blurred into a Kumbaya. It’s still a thing of beauty as much as it’s had the sheen rubbed off by ten thousand wedding ceremonies. The price paid for a timeless classic.

He wants to round out the set with Jubilee Street and Push The Sky Away. It’s fair play but an uninteresting one. I’ve never been able to get a handle on Jubilee Street. I like the progression and the atmosphere but the story doesn’t feel vital. Decrepit man sleeps with prostitutes and is transmogrified. The crescendo is hard to do in this format but he gives it a crack. A tender Push The Sky Away concludes the set and he leaps off his seat and blows kisses to the crowd. Standing ovations of course. How could they refuse.

After a towel down and a sip of water he’s bouncing back on stage and introduces his special guest, Beth Orton. This is preposterous to me. One of my first big shows was opening for Beth Orton at the Enmore Theatre. He’s doing this on purpose to taunt me. He’s letting me know I’m still chicken shit. Beth Orton sounds gravellier than I remember, but it’s been a while, about 20 years. They have fun with the Ship Song. They don’t really have to try at this point.

Now he does something really fucking crazy. He plays Shivers for Rowland Howard. A song written by Rowland as a teenager and performed by The Boys Next Door. This is ancient history and the song is an historical artefact, it’s embedded in the fabric of Australian music culture. I’ve seen people butcher this a few times but Nick is inside the song like it’s 1979. The Spine aye aye aye aye aye aye chorus is hard for him to pull off but it doesn’t matter. What would Rowland think? I wonder that sometimes about all sorts of things when I’d rather not know.

Next it’s the highly decorated Grinderman song Palaces of Montezuma and Alys my girlfriend loves this song so I try to love it too. The spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee. It’s hard to argue with a line like that. No one else was going to write that and anyone else would sound like a fool singing it.

Now another song for Suzie, Wide Lovely Eyes is simple and beautiful and open and all sorts of lovely, I’m feeling lovely at this point. Sometimes I want to hate him but he is a lovely old man. I forgive him the anger of his youth, the pain he’s subjected me to. He is a happy sad old lovely man and I kind of love him smiling at his piano singing for his lovely wife.

He concludes the set with a rousing version of The Carnival is Over by The Seekers – Colin’s struggling to get the rhythm with a pick. He doesn’t mention it’s the final song on Kicking Against The Pricks, he may have forgotten that all together. There’s very little irony at this point. It feels like it’s a song he genuinely loves to play and he plays it like he’s the grandfather in the living room on Christmas Day singing for the family.


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