Conversations With Nick Cave, The Barbican

IMG_4103Wednesday June 19, 2019

The Barbican hall is filling up with this evening’s crowd. About twenty or so have already taken their seats on the actual stage, sitting around tables behind and to the sides of the centrally placed piano. I don’t know if these were special tickets or if they are friends of Cave, but the setting does add a more intimate feeling to the concert, which I guess, is the point.

Nick Cave, as always, immaculately dressed enters the stage to deafening applause. He sits down at the piano and plays the first song of the evening, God Is In the House. 

Last time I saw Nick Cave was when he played with the Bad Seeds at Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2018. Tonight’s venue, the Barbican, is significantly smaller than a massive festival site, Cave is performing solo, and the format of the performance is that in between the songs, Cave takes questions from the audience. He is neither scared of going into personal details, nor of dismissing a question if he doesn’t want to talk about it. However, he answers most questions as well as he sees fit, whether about his son who died tragically a few years earlier, Brexit (about which he, as an Australian, has distanced and mixed emotions), and his songwriting process (‘going to the office’).

Many of Cave’s songs have religious and spiritual themes and he tells the audience that Jesus as a flawed human is one of the threads that runs through many of his songs. He says he doesn’t care if God exists or not but it’s important to him to live as if there is a God, so there’s something (bigger than oneself) to reach for – as a human and as a songwriter, and Cave is puzzled by the thought of songwriters who don’t believe in God, because that’s a serious reduction of material to write about. 

IMG_4114

Many questions from fans are started with an introductory, ‘I only have a short question’, after which the person starts asking a long-winded question which is often more about themselves than Cave. While I understand that it can be nerve wrecking to get to ask your idol a question and that the eagerness to show off one’s insight and humour in front of Cave, is tempting, it is very irritating for those of us who are here to see Nick Cave and not another member of the audience. Having said that, it becomes so comical after a while, I begin to smile about it instead of being irritated. But quite frankly, don’t start your question with, ‘I only have a short question’, when that’s clearly not true. Just admit straight up your question is longwinded and is more about yourself than the person you’re asking, so we’re all warned in advance.

IMG_4104

He sings a few beautiful covers, including Cosmic Dancer (T. Rex). Cave tells us an anecdote about one of his heroes, Leonard Cohen, and says that though he never spent time with Cohen, he received an email from him when his son died saying, ‘I’m with you brother’. Cohen may no longer be here but his songs still are, and Cave does full justice to Cohen with his rendition of Avalanche.

It’s great to hear Nick Cave talk and give us his insights on various things, but the highlights for me are the songs – that wonderful, warm voice, singing those (often) dark, sinister songs. Like sweet honey mixed with bitter marmite, getting the balance between the light and the dark just right.

Nick Cave setlist
1. God Is In the House
2. West Country Girl
3. Cosmic Dancer (T. Rex cover)
4. Love Letter
5. Jubilee Street
6. Avalanche (Leonard Cohen cover)
7. The Mercy Seat
8. The Sorrowful Wife
9. Stagger Lee
10. Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry
11. Palaces of Montezuma (Grinderman song)
12. Into My Arms
13. Skeleton Tree

Nils Frahm, The Barbican

2018, Nils Frahm, stageLondon, Friday February 23, 2018

The last (and only other) time I saw Nils Frahm in concert was at The Roundhouse, a standing concert, which had me retreating to a corner to sit down about halfway through. Not out of boredom but just because a Nils Frahm concert doesn’t seem like a standing concert to me. But this time, touring his latest album, All Melody, he’s playing a seated venue, The Barbican, and there’s no need for me to retreat to any corners, even though for part of the concert I kind of wish I could, because a woman sitting right behind me and my concert-going companion, keeps breaking into fits of laughter for no known reason. Luckily this stops after about 30 minutes (or maybe I just blanked it out after a while), and either way, this is not about a loud attention-seeking audience member, this is about the attention-seeking (!) performing artist on the stage that we’ve all come to see.

Not quite classical, not quite trance
The set up on stage is pretty much what one would imagine Frahm’s Funkhaus studio in Berlin looks like, with its warm lights and homely feel. So when Nils Frahm enters the stage, it feels more like he’s arrived at his studio one evening, as if we’ve all been invited round to watch an artist at work, creating elaborate sounds in real time. His music is not quite classical, not quite trance. It’s like repetitive blocks of chords and patterns that translate into something quite meditative and beautiful, like on one of the first songs of the evening, My Friend the Forest, which evokes feelings of a walk through empty city streets or perhaps a desolate beach. Having said that, there’s nothing empty about a Nils Frahm concert, who has sold out all four of his shows at this residency stint at The Barbican.

2018, Nils Frahm, stage2

It would be fine just seeing Frahm sitting and playing, but the live experience is elevated by Frahm’s very active movement on stage. Several times he gets up from whatever keyboard/harmonium/toy piano/organ//grand piano he’s playing at that time, to go to his ‘soundboard’ to create his loops of beats and baselines, and then rushes back to his keys and resumes playing. It almost gets comical at times; will he make it back from the soundboard without tripping over a monitor?

Dry wit
Frahm is also an engaging and entertaining storyteller. Throughout the evening, he will pick up the microphone and tell us a funny anecdote; about the huge organ he’s travelling with but is too big to make it to the stage; or, towards the end of the concert when he tells the audience that he’ll be back in a moment to play “a great encore set that I’ve prepared meticulously.”

His dry wit goes well with his compositions, which are in their own way, quite deadpan, perhaps best illustrated on the composition, For Peter – Toilet Brushes – More, where Frahm plays the strings on his grand piano with, what I assume are unused, toilet brushes (will his next album be called Music for Toilets?), creating a more ‘plucking’ stringed sound than if played on the keys of the piano, momentarily rendering Frahm not only a key-player but also some kind of string-player. This section makes me think of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, which may be two hands clapping together, rather than a toilet brush beating down on the piano strings, but the piece offers the same kind of break in the rest of the music – a toilet break, if you will – before returning to playing meditative patterns on the keys. 

After the two-hour solo concert Frahm comes out in the foyer to sign autographs. He is friendly and talkative and full of energy. It takes a special talent to do what Nils Frahm does on stage, but it also takes a special person to be so forthcoming towards a bunch of strangers who all essentially ‘want something from him’. He doesn’t seem to mind. Sure, the concert is over and he’s now working overtime, but he gets paid extra in the form of endless compliments and admiration. Not a bad way for him to spend an evening. And not a bad way for the rest of us either.

Nils Frahm setlist
Not available.