Leave it to Leonard Cohen to explain in simple words from beyond the grave what his devotee Nick Cave was doing Tuesday night at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, part of the heretofore enigmatic Australian rocker’s Conversations Tour:
“I’m with you, brother.”
That’s it. That’s the note Cohen sent to his fellow soul-mining songwriter four years ago after Cave’s son died in an accident at age 15.
The tragedy came up in a roundabout way early in Tuesday’s performance/grilling, in which Cave took dozens of questions from fans and sang 14 songs on piano for three straight hours — no intermission, no script, no safety net. Even for a 62-year-old punk singer known to write murder ballads and leap into crowds, the format seemed daring.
One of the first questions of the night was about his interactions with Cohen, whose classic “Avalanche” then became one of the set’s highlights. Turns out, the two song men had never met face-to-face, which Cave said made his hero’s note all the more “an act of compassion I will never forget.”
As the show progressed — sometimes with breezier topics, like his friend Wim Wenders’ filmmaking and even Henry Rollins’ weight-lifting — it became clear this intimate and insightful Pantages appearance was probably Cave’s own version of “I’m there for you.”
Fans peppered the lanky, black-suited singer with questions about depression, religion, violence and family strife, as if the dark prince of Australian rock had suddenly become a psychologist open for business. One freshly heartbroken guy even openly asked, “Is love worth it?”
On a much brighter but no less meaningful note, another audience member enlisted Cave’s help to propose to his girlfriend via one of the microphones in the crowd. Based on the delicately potent version of “Into Your Arms” then played on piano for the couple, she must’ve said yes.
The fans were there for Cave, too. He confided that a worldwide 2017-2018 tour with his band the Bad Seeds was “an act of survival,” and this unusually reciprocal solo outing was a “continuation of that act.”
There was no mention of “Ghosteen,” the new Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds double album coming out Friday. Instead, Cave repeatedly talked up his website Red Hand Files, sort of an online newsletter and forum where he similarly interacts with fans — a duty he called “a privilege.”
“It’s not so much a feeling of support, although I do feel that,” he said. “It’s a feeling of collective need.”
From that standpoint, it’s no surprise Cave uncharacteristically opened up on all fronts, whether it was describing his religious views or writing techniques or even just dropping in gossipy tidbits involving some of his famous or similarly influential friends:
*On how his songwriting approach has changed over the years from character-driven songs such as “Stagger Lee,” “Jubilee Street” and “The Mercy Seat” — all of which he performed — to more opaque and less narrative-driven fare: “My songs are much more like questions these days than they are songs that tell stories,” he said.
*On Rollins, who became a good chum after the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991, despite their divergent habits: “I was very into drugs at the time,” Cave bluntly recounted. “We would be shooting up in the corner, and Henry would be over in the other corner doing push-ups.”
*On whether or not his first band the Birthday Party’s tour with the Peter Murphy-led goth-rock band Bauhaus in 1981 influenced his own creative process: “No.” And his short answer spoke volumes.
*On recently deceased Texas songwriter Daniel Johnston, who struggled with mental illness: “He engaged in saving the world through music,” Cave said, before singing Johnston’s “Devil Town” a cappella. “He wasn’t just [messing] around.”
A few other surprise song picks were thrown in, too, including an unforeseeably elegant “Palaces of Montezuma” by his experimental ’00s rock band Grinderman. At show’s end, he dug up the Birthday Party nugget “Shivers” (dedicated to late guitarist Rowland Howard) and then ended with what he called his “favorite song in the world,” T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer.”
On the musical front, Tuesday’s event was no match for the visceral, physical impact of a typical Cave performance. After the way he opened up when he wasn’t behind the piano, though, those typical performances should hit even harder for the fans who got this rare glimpse behind Cave’s dark-velvety curtain.