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Nick Cave in Melbourne: Musician at His Most Vulnerable [Live Review]

Cave took the opportunity to “disassemble” some of his songs at the Plenary in Melbourne last week

Nick Cave

David Wolff Patrick/Redferns/Getty Images

Nick Cave

Plenary, Melbourne

Friday, April 26th

The inimitable Nick Cave. When you think of Australia’s iconic prince of darkness, you probably think of his manic virtuosity as the frontman of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, or as a goth-tinged, post-punk wizard hypnotising you into thinking that maybe Kylie has a great voice after all.

He’s an almost mythical persona; someone who can reach into the depths of the human soul and pull out poetry, someone who famously called journalists “fucking idiots” to a journalist’s face. (Which I always found interesting, for someone who was briefly married to one.)

It’s hard to think of Cave as vulnerable, because the character of The Very Complicated and Caustic Nick Cave has mostly done the talking. And the singing. But at the Plenary in Melbourne last week, as he sat down softly at his piano to open a 5,000-strong sold out, sit-down concert, we saw something new – something raw, open, and perhaps even extraordinary – unfold in the most ordinary of gig venues.

Has Cave changed? Or has he just evolved into someone who allows himself to expose the thorny emotion behind the genius? The next two hours would provide a window into a side of Cave I personally haven’t seen before.

Opening with “Girl in Amber” on an empty stage, save for a piano and the occasionally discarded page of sheet music, Cave was joined only by Colin Greenwood of Radiohead, who dipped in and out quietly throughout the set. This is “not the Bad Seeds”, Cave declared early in the set, telling the audience that it was, instead, an opportunity to “disassemble” the songs. 

The audience was pretty well-behaved – perhaps owing to the sombre, seated nature of the Plenary, or perhaps due to the ageing of Cave’s fanbase, who were obediently waiting for his entry right on the stage time of 8pm – and Cave, maybe sensing the audience’s hesitation to interact, asked for some uncharacteristic call-back participation for “Balcony Man”.

It did the trick: a few songs later, “The Weeping Song” finally elicited a sing-along reaction from the audience, now happy to throw their voices in the ring of such an up-until-now intimate delivery of the back catalogue.

What may have been missing for casual fans were the more famous of the Bad Seeds’ crossover tracks like “Red Right Hand” or “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, but there were definitely plenty of hits in “The Ship Song” and “Into My Arms”. A guttural and raw rendition of Cave’s self-described “super fucked up lullaby”, “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”, saw Cave as possibly the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen him. The heaviness and sadness was there, and he let us in, just for a moment, to share in his grief.

It was beyond moving – perhaps lost for those in the balcony, in the cavernous space of the Plenary – but it was Cave’s genuine emotion that filled the air; we breathed it in together, and we all moved on, just a little.

There were also deep cuts like “Euthanasia” and “Give Us a Kiss” – both of which Cave described as songs that the rest of the band weren’t particularly keen on in the studio. There seemed to be subtext here, that he felt the songs were important to his oeuvre. (Unfortunately, I erred on the side of the band.)

But beyond these blips were raw renditions of much-loved old songs. The most poignant of these, for me, came during the encore, when Cave dedicated an electric performance of “Shivers” to his old Boys Next Door bandmate Rowland S. Howard. Along with a sentimental rendition of The Seekers’ “The Carnival Is Over”, Cave earned his second standing ovation of the night, and we were ejected into the darkness to sit side by side with our battered sensibilities. 

Cave may have felt alone on that stage as he poured out his heart, but in the end, we were all together. That night, we shared it with him.