Over a casual dinner a few months ago, I reluctantly admitted—to the former owner of a Portland record shop, no less—that my appreciation for Nick Cave had arrived quite late. It wasn’t until 2021’s Carnage, Cave’s collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis, that I really began to move my way backward down through Cave’s enormous and daunting catalog of dark, beautiful, transcendent, sometimes sneering, always captivating music.
I had somehow been eternally aware of the Importance of Nick Cave, so to speak, but never gave his music the time it deserved. We don’t get to pick when we’re born. We don’t even get to pick the records we steal from elder siblings, or from the cooler kids we weave to avoid in grade school hallways. We build our own canon, for better or worse, and fill in the blanks later on. In Mr. Cave’s case, for me, much, much later. My dining partner dispensed with my shame and hipster handwringing and said, simply, “That’s because he’s getting better.”
That phrase can mean many different things in the case of Nick Cave. When he took the stage at the Orpheum—accompanied by Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood on electric bass—for a stripped-down voyage through that deep and varied songbook, in skeletal arrangements, under wide beams of light swirling with stage smoke that evoked sunlight piercing through cathedral windows, Cave paused behind his grand piano to introduce a song from 2019’s Ghosteen.
“This song is a response to a lot of letters that I got after my son died,” Cave said, searching for the right words. “They were telling me that similar things had happened to them. They weren’t just letters of commiseration; they were very beautiful letters that explained things to me. This song, ‘Galleon Ship,’ was written in response to that, in a way. To the many people that are awake in the middle of the night and look into the stars and wonder.”
Over the course of two hours, peppered with claps and hollers from a reverential crowd who could recognize a decades-old tune at the sound of three notes struck on an imposing black grand by their hero’s stabbing hands, Cave’s song selection wandered as far back as 1979 (“Shivers,” by his first band, the Boys Next Door) through “Palaces of Montezuma” by his 2006 Grinderman rock side-gig (also with Warren Ellis), up to the aforementioned title track from Carnage. The assembled were with him at every turn, accepting whatever the musician had to offer, after having given them so much of himself for decades.
No one needs to write anything more about the grief Cave has endured in recent years, because he is its most eloquent servant. Whether via his ongoing Red Hand Files project, and especially his recent book—Faith, Hope and Carnage—a conversation with Irish journalist Seán O’Hagan—Cave’s rebirth of sorts, at 66, is a thing to behold. You could see its patterns of push and pull on this particular night at the Orpheum, when he’d disappear into a song as mournful as “Waiting for You” and suddenly jump up from the piano at its end with microphone in hand, like a carnival barker, cracking jokes and waxing wise.
There was his reluctance to leave after two encores—this was the final show of his North American tour with Greenwood. “Where else am I going?” he laughed, returning to the piano’s bench. Or when he’d respond to outbursts of adoration throughout the evening with an “I love you, too” seemingly dozens of times, only to later instruct the “floor people” to “shut the fuck up” during a performance of “Balcony Man,” with a wide smile and a healthy laugh.
For this night, at least, Nick Cave was happy. Because Nick Cave really is getting better.
Photographed by Danielle Ernst.