Five of Nick Cave’s Most Sublime Live Performances

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Nick Cave Idiot Prayer
Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace

Ahead of his live one-person show at Alexandra Palace this week, James Balmont presents a selection of Cave’s most memorable live performances: from a 1980s TV show set to a song from his recent Conversations with Nick Cave tour

Never one to roll over in the face of adversity, Nick Cave is set to defy the crushing restrictions on live music consumption this week with a live-streaming event broadcast across the globe. He follows in the footsteps of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto – whose Playing the Piano for the Isolated concert film has already been streamed over 350,000 times since May 16 – performing songs from across his career alone at a piano, trading the warmth and safety of a music studio room for the cavernous walls of London’s Alexandra Palace.

Cave had been due to perform at similar-sized venues in the UK and Europe this spring with his band The Bad Seeds, in support of 2019 album Ghosteen, but plans were scuppered after the coronavirus outbreak forced strict limitations on public gatherings. Famed for his magnetic stage presence and dynamic performances, Cave has opted to flip the table for Idiot Prayer, abandoning the crowd-baiting expressionism of his full-band shows for a more intimate encounter.

As speculators ponder the material that will comprise the show, we look back at previous live broadcasts for a reminder of what makes Cave a performer worthy of such a hallowed spectacle.

1. The Singer (The Tube, 1986)

Cave’s lip-synced performance of The Singer on Channel 4’s youth-orientated music show The Tube popped up on UK TV screens when he was at the height of his smouldering “junkie poet” phase. Vacantly staring down the camera, and at one point appearing to forget to sing along, Cave’s sharply dressed silhouette perches beneath a burning spotlight in what was one of his first introductions to a mainstream audience. He left an impression.

Cave’s 1986 rendition of the Johnny Cash number The Folk Singer, was an early indication of the figure that would gradually displace Cave’s former goth-punk enfant terrible. But despite once being a staple of The Bad Seeds’ live shows, it’s not been played since 2005. Don’t be surprised if another cover version pops up at Ally Pally, though – both Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche and T. Rex’s Cosmic Dancer featured in sets by Cave in the early months of 2020.

2. The Ship Song (Songwriters’ Circle, 1999)

The unique setting and ambience of BBC Four programme Songwriters’ Circle had already made the show a muso’s favourite – but this 1999 performance provided a particularly memorable highlight for the series. Filmed at London’s Subterania Club, the episode featured stories and acoustic renditions from The Velvet Underground’s John Cale and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, who, along with Cave, collaborated for a performance of the Velvet Underground classic I’m Waiting For My Man at the show’s climax.

The biggest clap of the night, though, was for Nick Cave’s piano rendition of The Ship Song, the undisputed highlight of 1990 album The Good Son. It is, along with Into My Arms from the same show, Cave’s most-viewed live clip on YouTube, having racked up nearly five million views. Cave’s intimate, emotional delivery and gentle piano-playing here trumps even the more fleshed-out studio recording, and it is this gravitas that makes it the definitive version of the songs.

3. Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry (c. 1999–2000)

This piano version of the Henry’s Dream track Papa Won’t Leave You Henry is dubiously credited to an unnamed 1997 Italian TV show. It’s more likely that the performance came from a series of solo live shows late 1999 or early 2000, at the tail end of a period of heavy alcohol and heroin dependency.

While the 1992 studio version of Papa is a sprawling, rollicking number with a full band backing, this stripped back variation was described by the artist as more akin to a “nasty, fucked-up lullaby”. The chord structure and structure would be recycled for the song Darker With The Day, a tender ballad that closed 2001 album No More Shall We Part.

4. The Mercy Seat (David Letterman, 2003)

Cave has often described The Mercy Seat as one of his favourite songs to perform live because of its adaptable nature. This story of a man preparing to for his execution has been re-imagined extensively since it was first recorded in 1988, for the seven-minute opener to fifth album Tender Prey. In 2020 it is his most-performed live song of all time by some distance.

While the original recording is a cacophony of guitars, organs and snare rolls, this restrained solo performance on David Letterman in 2003 repositions it as a tender piano ballad, with a crooning vocal replacing the snarling bite of the recorded version.

5. Into My Arms (NYC Town Hall, 2019)

Much of Cave’s critically acclaimed, piano-based 1997 album The Boatman’s Call would fit the bill for Alexandra Palace (the event is, after all, named after the album’s track Idiot Prayer), but lead single Into My Arms is surely a dead cert. A melancholy love song inspired by a vicar’s sermon at a Surrey church, it was written following Cave’s break-up with PJ Harvey. This cathartic period, he claims, gave him the courage to step away from character-driven songs in favour of more commonplace human experiences, like romance and heartbreak.

This rendition was captured at NYC Town Hall in 2019 at the tail end of his Conversations with Nick Cave live tours, which found Cave engaging in unscripted discussions with audience members before performing stripped-back piano versions of his repertoire.

Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace will be live on July 23, 2020 at 8pm BST. Buy tickets here.