Nick Cave in Athens. Source: Kostas Stamou. All rights reserved.There is no one place to start on Nick Cave in concert, in Athens or anywhere else. The man, together with his Bad Seeds, is a comet, he screams through our atmosphere and you simply choose to which of his glorious trails you will grab a hold. In truth, to review the concert seems little more than to record that which is self-evident, a higher brow version of the – I have to say it but – insufferable, people lifting up their phones in front of you. To record is the most overrated, distracting, masturbatory act of our self-involved age and really the only reason to record Nick Cave live is to implore others to see Nick Cave live.
For the man, like his comet, is on fire, ablaze. Subtly too, he is on a quiet, artistic mission to save the world. Or perhaps only to reach newer heights of his art, and in so doing have the same effect all the same. Cave finished his gig in Athens with a hundred of the nearest audience up on the stage and dancing with him, dressed as ever in a black jacket and unbuttoned white shirt. You could describe it as a man who started punk in crowded, piss-stinking venues but who still, taken to the biggest of stages, understands that same truth that he is his crowd and his crowd is he. He is his crowd and his crowd is he.
To politicise such an act, needlessly but again I must, the most ambitious artist of our age, crowned in any individual glory he’d wish for, thrives in the collective act of sharing his stage.
After two hours, he plays out that crowd, just as the last time I saw him, in 2013, with ‘Push the Sky Away’, the final song from the album of the same name. In 2013 I saw him in Hammersmith, London, Lou Reed had died that day, and Cave dedicated the song to him, in a way that seemed fitting as we left the venue. Tonight, whether it’s in a change of his delivery or simply of four more years, the words strike somehow harder:
“And if you feel you’ve got everything that you came for,
if you’ve got everything and you don’t want no more
you’ve gotta just keep on pushing,
Push the sky away.”
Explicitly, Nick Cave is doing here what he does all throughout his set – demanding more. He demands more of himself and of his listeners. Push the sky away; hear those words not as a lyrical construct but as a practical instruction, and that is the crux of Cave’s journey. If you have enough, do more, for it is the only compulsion that will alleviate the burden of our difficult times.
Kostas Stamou. All rights reserved.In that goal he collapses boundaries. When you watch Nick Cave you see him, unbuttoned to the top of his stomach, flanked by a half dozen men who are so unashamedly male not one will remove his jacket. And yet, and yet, when he sings, ‘Into my Arms’, all the bearded males around me in the audience do sing loud, soft as babies each one
“I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you.”
He makes us all Human, such is the beauty of Cave. The man who can have the heart-rending operatic hoops of ‘Distant sky’, is alongside he who has Stagger Lee and “I’ll crawl over fifty good pussies to get one fat boy’s asshole”. He will give you utmost depravity but also the most tender, gorgeous understanding of what it is to be human, simply human, and his fearlessness in visiting darkness makes the light shine brighter. He collapses boundaries.
In the old world of Europe, with an Athens outside that is ravaged by its debt crisis and yet still sharing – with Turkey – far more than a fair share of the Middle East’s refugee population, it is deeply precious to have music willing to go after the outer limits of what it is to be alive.
To state as much clearly is a burden no artist should shoulder, lest it inhibit them, or perhaps – we can only hope – have them rise still higher. Next, Cave is due to go to Tel Aviv, Israel, a country that denies Palestinians and Arab Israelis even the most basic versions of the human experience Cave chronicles so perfectly. It is there that we will truly see, if he goes to that land so full of walls, just how many he is able tear apart.
Detail from graphic novel, Mercy on Me by Reinhard Kleist.