Revolution Hall, Portland, OR

It has become easier in this ever-shrinking world, one where we can reach out and contact our friends at any moment via text message, to interact with our celebrity heroes. Whether it be via Twitter or Reddit AMAs, fans can receive validation from their idols, even if it’s a simple like or retweet. This sort of access was unheard of until recently. If you told me when I was a child that I could send a message to Alex Winter congratulating him on the new Bill and Ted film and then almost instantly receive a brief response, my mind would have been blown.

Even more astounding is that Nick Cave, a musician who has always shrouded himself in mystery, has begun reaching out to his audience both in the live setting and online. The Skeleton Tree shows saw Cave climbing through the crowd, embracing fans, often culminating in stage-invasion parties where audience members danced along to “Stagger Lee.” Meanwhile, Cave’s Red Hand Files site allows him to answer fan questions, usually one or two per week, about everything from his favorite poets to even soul-piercing inquiries such as how the musician imagines the sound of God’s voice. Cave even went as far as to announce his most recent album, Ghosteen, on the site rather than via the traditional press release route.

In an effort to connect even more with his audience, Cave has mounted a series of “Conversations” shows where he intersperses unmoderated question-and-answer sessions with songs played solo on the piano. This conceit is a generous and bold move by any artist, but even more so by Cave whose cultish status affords him a coterie of extremely needy and fanatical fans. Over the three hours he spent on the stage at Portland’s tiny Revolution Hall, Cave fielded many questions that ranged from honest queries about his process and history to somewhat pathetic pleas for the singer to simply recognize how much the questioner loved him and his work.

The show worked best when Cave and the fan worked in concert to reveal something new. Cave seemed in good spirits when talking about his failed Gladiator sequel script or sharing his experiences singing with Johnny Cash. He was quick to laud his past collaborators, telling stories about Rowland S. Howard and Blixa Bargeld and examining how his relationship corroded with Mick Harvey. Cave joked about the horrors of his Lollapalooza experience and spoke frankly about the death of his teenage son, Arthur. He was also extremely interested in hearing how his fans responded to Ghosteen, remarking that he was especially pleased when one claimed that he had listened to it 75 times in the few days following its release.

Cave clearly explained in his opening monologue how the evening would work, speaking to the “terror” he felt each night since the questions were unmoderated. He asked us not to judge one another. Some fans spoke about personal traumas and successes. One celebrated one-year being sober with Cave, a former addict himself. One woman even surprised the singer by claiming that she grew up in the same small town in Australia.

On the flip side, many of the “questions” were absolutely excruciating to sit through. One guy began his inquiry by listing off all the people close to him who had died only to ask Cave, “What’s your favorite pizza?” Another woman rambled on about the clouds and how she saw Cave, his dead son and others in the sky whenever she heard his music. Another guy went extremely personal and asked Cave for memories of his two young sons together and wondered how the surviving twin is dealing with the death of his brother. Cave declined to answer the question, genially claiming that Earl was off-limits, and instead talking about his own grieving process and that of his wife Susie Bick. The nadir of the evening came when one fan offered Cave a snot-and-tear-stained hankie in tribute. Cave should have demurred and told her no thanks, but he was game and took the wretched rag.

Why did these people use our precious time this way? It was much more interesting to hear Cave explain why he considers “Nobody’s Baby Now” a triumph or respond to a question about how he feels about becoming an “emerging elder” in the music business. The genuinely curious queries, such as asking what does Cave do when he has to perform on an evening where he isn’t feeling well, is much more interesting than asking him how he would redefine himself if he could. He’s Nick fucking Cave. Why would he want to be anyone else? Hell, even the person who asked him to name their new kitten posed a better question than that one. And no matter how you feel about the fan who requested a hug from the musician, Cave gamely invited her up onto the stage for an embrace and even kissed her on the cheek for good measure. Are such requests a sign of desperation? Cave asked us not to judge one another at the beginning of the show, but is that even possible?

The concert portions of the evening were more routinely excellent with Cave reaching deep in his catalog to perform fan favorites such as “The Ship Song” and “The Mercy Seat” alongside lesser-known gems such as “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow” and “Shivers,” a Howard-penned song from his Boys Next Door years. He tried to honor requests, taking on “Breathless,” while shooing away other suggestions such as “Straight to You” or “Sheep May Safely Graze” while graciously explaining why he couldn’t perform those.

It’s easy to wonder how each of the Conversations shows differ each night. Cave claimed that Portland has a reputation for being a tough crowd but I am curious how different or similar the concert was from other cities. Cave has been playing between 11 and 16 songs per show and we ended up on the lower end with 12. How did the fans feel telling Cave about their losses (something the singer said we would all experience), their ardent devotion to his songs, their trauma? At the end of the three hours, Cave looked tired, finishing up by singing “Stagger Lee” and “Breathless.” For someone known for putting on high-energy concerts, perhaps enduring so many attempts for closeness is what truly exhausts Cave. A musician who knows Cave suggested to me that perhaps the Conversations tour is a piece of performance art to show us what Cave has to deal with on a daily basis. While I do think he is truly trying to connect with fans, one big takeaway from the evening is it must be exhausting to be Nick Cave.

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