Conversations With Nick Cave Flips The Script On Performance Art

Friday 11th, October 2019 / 14:32
By Glenn Alderson

Stock photo of Nick Cave performing at the Sydney Opera House | Photo: Daniel Boud

October 10, 2019
The Massey Theatre (New Westminster)

If you believe in loaded questions then New Westminster was firing devastating blanks when Nick Cave took the stage at the Massey Theatre on Thursday night. The Vancouver suburb played host to the iconic Australian songwriter and his latest performative experiment, Conversations With Nick Cave.

The show is designed to play out like a choose-your-own-adventure, impacted partly by the audience and, of course, the debonair patron saint of goth rock himself. During the performance, he engaged the audience in a lengthy back and forth in the form of a Q&A, performing songs every once in a while on the robust grand piano in the middle of the stage. 

Dapper as ever, Cave sauntered on stage in a beautifully tailored black suit, shiny opera pumps on his feet and his hair slicked back. He did his best to interact with the sold-out audience while they spewed questions so uninspired you’d be forgiven for thinking they were all secretly writing for the same amateur fanzine. 

While the potential for greatness was always there, neither Cave nor the audience could land it on this particular occasion.

It’s no secret Cave lost his son in a tragic accident four years ago after a bad acid trip found the 15-year-old at the bottom of a steep cliff in Brighton, England. And so, the evening naturally started on the topic of grief. 

After the elephant in the room was addressed, Cave stressed that in no way was he there to grieve; although it was almost impossible to not equate the experience to a form of group therapy after multiple variations of the same question kept popping up around the topic.

In 2018 Cave launched a site called the Red Hand Files, an intimate no-holds-barred way for him to communicate with his fans outside of his music — ”You can ask me anything. There will be no moderator. This will be between you and me. Let’s see what happens. Much love, Nick,” is what he’s written on the landing page of the site. In the last two years he’s been flooded with thousands of questions, confessions, notes of admiration, and everything in-between. 

In a profile posted by the Guardian, journalist Russell Cunningham suggested this social experiment of sorts was a much gentler way of using the Internet, and he’s not wrong. Not many artists have embraced the gross and ugly world wide web and flipped the script on online communication in the way Cave has. 

The engagement with the Red Hand Files was so intense—and his experience with it was so positive and overwhelming—that he decided to take the concept on the road.

To do what Cave has been doing night after night all over the world requires an admirable amount of humility. According to Cave, spreading “terror and excitement” through this honest and empathetic style of engagement is not only cathartic but also inspirational and humbling for the artist this late in his career. If only New West could have got their Qs together.

“I’m getting married in a couple months, do you have any advice?” one audience member asked.

“Go on tour for a year,” Cave suggested jokingly.

“My wife and I are having a baby, do you have any tips for a soon-to-be father?” another asked. 

“I already used my ‘go-on-tour’ line,” Cave replied, mildly disengaged. 

There were a few charming moments throughout the night, one which included an audience member giving him a book of commemorative Canadian stamps with Leonard Cohen on them. Cave then obliged and performed a stunning rendition of Cohen’s “Avalanche” off the album Songs of Love and Hate

The audience hurled their best Qs at him over the course of three hours in between songs that he would perform whenever things got too awkward. 

There was one point in the night, perhaps the best moment, where someone asked about separating the artist from their work, clearly inspired by the many people who are still trying to reconcile their love for right wing garbage humans like Morrissey. Cave has been a longtime advocate for the division of the two, arguing that beauty comes in all sinister shapes and sizes.

There is an element of beauty to what Cave is doing through his Conversations series and the bare-all portal that he’s opened to himself for his audience members to see is almost too good to pass up.

Even Elvis Costello and his wife Diana Krall made it out to see how Cave’s unique performative speaking engagement would land — likely at the suggestion of their publicist. And while Costello is merely a lateral contemporary to the kind of boundary-pushing music Cave has been creating since his teens, it was clear this process was touching the entire audience on this night in all sorts of ways.

Some people showed up expecting therapy or looking for the wrong kind of answers, but Cave is no priest or saviour. He’s proven that he’s just a guy who happens to be really talented at writing songs with an impressive legacy as a performer. And while maybe everyone didn’t get what they came for, they did get an intimate up-close-and-personal snapshot of a rock and roll icon in one of their most vulnerable states yet.

Maybe next time though, they’ll come armed with some better questions.