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The return of live music: Nick Cave’s ‘Idiot Prayer’

Thomas Carter heralds a ray of light in the darkness of 2020

Of the many cultural events 2020 has cruelly snatched away from us, the loss of live music is perhaps the one that has hit the hardest. To add to the emotional gut-punch of cancelled concerts and festivals, financial losses across the music industry running into the billions have wiped out sources of income for many acts and pushed smaller venues to the brink.

There have so far been many attempts to fill the void, from pre-recorded stage shows by the likes of Megan thee Stallion to artists such as Waxahatchee livestreaming casual performances on a regular basis, and even the first ‘socially-distanced’ gigs trialled at Newcastle’s Gosforth Park, opened by Sam Fender in August. The majority of these ‘live’ gigs have attempted to recreate the experience and sensation of attending a concert as best they can, with varying degrees of success.

This makes Idiot Prayer, a performance by venerable Australian artist Nick Cave, recorded in June at London’s Alexandra Palace and streamed to fans worldwide in late July, a striking exception. Rather than attempting to recreate any sense of physical connection or intimacy, Cave instead embraces the feelings of loneliness and isolation that have become universal during the pandemic – something that becomes immediately apparent from the first few frames of the livestream, as he walks through an empty, cavernous Ally Pally and the title card appears on the screen: “Nick Cave, Alone at Alexandra Palace”.

Everything about the film and performance is designed to reinforce this sense of aloneness. Other than reciting a short poem at the start, Cave says nothing throughout the entire show, and does away with his usually-elaborate staging in favour of the minimalist direction and lighting of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan. All the songs are announced by title card, without preamble or fanfare, and the camera focuses exclusively on close-ups of Cave’s face or wide shots of the piano in the middle of the disconcertingly vast concert hall. Apart from the music, the only sounds are his footsteps, echoing throughout the eerie silence as he walks away from the piano once it’s all over.

The songs themselves reflect the almost oppressive isolation of the surroundings. The 21-song setlist spans the full length of Cave’s career, including tracks from his albums with supporting band The Bad Seeds and his side-projects, but it draws especially from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, an album made in the shadow of his break-up with PJ Harvey that is rich with the senses of absence and catastrophic loss, emotions all too familiar in a year that has been at times a seemingly unending stream of tragedies and setbacks.

Moreover, each song is given a particularly stripped-back, minimalist rendition. Most were developed over the course of Cave’s recent Conversations tour, where he juxtaposed piano arrangements of his songs with audience Q&As and remarkably candid discussions of the passing of his son Arthur in 2015. The sense of intimacy and vulnerability which defined that tour is ever-present here, especially through Cave’s voice, which, uniquely for an artist of his age, seems to get richer as he grows older, moving between astonishing tenderness on ‘Man in the Moon’ (from 2007’s Grinderman) and new track ‘Euthanasia’ to a barely-contained snarl on iconic Bad Seeds cut ‘The Mercy Seat.’

Cave makes it all seem effortless, which is impressive considering that at first glance there seems no way that these songs, taken from across a 40-year career and ranging dramatically in style and subject, should work alongside each other. ‘Palaces of Montezuma’, an upbeat and faintly satirical love song in which Cave makes increasingly extravagant and ridiculous declarations of love, is immediately followed by ‘Girl in Amber’, a song so drenched in grief and heartbreak it sounds in danger of collapsing in on itself; the intensity and skill of Cave’s performance is such that they flow together with ease.       

The livestream itself was impressively smooth, whilst the one-off nature of the performance (and the fact that you couldn’t pause it) gave a sense of exclusivity that made the entire thing feel more like an actual concert. Despite the success of Idiot Prayer, however, it’s hard to see this particular format really providing a replacement for live in-person concerts in the age of Covid. Idiot Prayer works so well because it doesn’t try to recreate or replace what has been lost, but instead leans into the oppressive silence and pervasive grief of the current environment and creates something that is uniquely of its time. It’s difficult to see an artist other than Nick Cave even attempting to pull something like this off, and there are certainly few others who could summon the aura of strangeness and sense of distance that makes this performance so affecting.

In a year when everyone seems to be grieving for something, there is no one who understands that and gives voice to it better than Cave. Equally, however, there are few others with a better understanding of the power of the universality of grief and the inevitability of hope. It’s not surprising that the final song Cave chooses to play, before he gets up from the piano and walks out of shot, is ‘Galleon Ship’, a song from his most recent album, Ghosteen, which is about exactly that. ‘For we are not alone, it seems/So many riders in the sky’, Cave sings, and, amidst the horrors and tragedies of 2020, it serves as a welcome reminder that we are truly not alone in this, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.       

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