Alexandra Palace is one of London’s most formidable live music venues, looming elegantly over the city. It’s strange to know that at some point over the past few weeks, Nick Cave and his crew secretly booked it out to film this spectacular one-man piano performance, a ticketed virtual gig which streamed for one-time only. You know – like an actual gig.
And if you happened to spend your Thursday night trying to cast your laptop to your telly so you didn’t have to watch the whole thing squinting at a small computer screen, then you’ll know just how special – and unrepeatable – this gig, dubbed ‘Idiot Prayer’, truly was.
With the Bad Seeds presumably still on furlough, a solo Cave delivers up a career-spanning set with a couple of Grinderman songs thrown in for good measure, one brand new song and a whole lot of his 1997 PJ Harvey break-up album ‘The Boatman’s Call’. In an ink-black Gucci suit, the Seed-less Cave opens the film by striding through the empty venue as the lyrics to last year’s Spinning Song are recited in voiceover.
That kind of dramatic opener should be no surprise, but to see the usually heaving, 11,000 capacity Ally Pally totally empty is so disconcerting that it manages to elevate the isolation many of us have been feeling over the past five months into something otherworldly. When he finally arrives in the main room, it looks more like the lavish Palace of Versailles than it does the home of the yearly Christmas piss-up that is the World Darts Championship.
Unlike Jarvis Cocker’s JARV IS… show from earlier this week – another pre-recorded COVID-induced concert film, that one recorded in a cave in Derbyshire – Cave doesn’t have the beauty of nature to fall back on. Neither does he have flashy lazers, a many limbed band, backing singers and tried-and-tested finger-pointing dance moves at his disposal. Rather than deliver spoken intros and Cocker’s disarmingly casual chatter, Cave doesn’t utter a word throughout. Instead we have title cards which arrive at the start of each song, announcing their name as if we were watching a silent movie.
His glossy black grand piano rings out powerful and pure as his fingers, heavy with thick gold rings, put it through its paces, digging deep into the weighty likes of fan favourites ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Jubilee Street’, ‘Brompton Oratory’, ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘The Ship Song’. Discarding papers scrawled with lyrics to the floor after each track might seem a poetic affectation, but this is the only clutter here.
Without crowds, chatter and the mess of thousands of human bodies all bumping up against each other, it’s possible to focus purely on Cave’s devastating lyricism: religion, death and romance all getting their chance to shine in the golden and purple lights that softly illuminate the room. In this setting perhaps the biggest revelation is the low-key take on surrealist Grinderman love song ‘Palaces of Montezuma’, which offers up the most cheering moment of this overly sombre hour-and-a-half.
Bearing a title bleak even for such a prince of darkness, new song ‘Euthanasia’ slots in gracefully to the deeply emotive 21-song set. “I look for you underneath the damp earth / I look for you in the night sky,” croons Cave, grief-stricken. But there is hope here too and an eventual feeling of acceptance, of coming-to-terms with it all: “In losing it all I found myself / Found myself in time.”
Finishing with a stark but lovely ‘Galleon Ship’ – the only full song to be taken from 2019’s harrowing ‘Ghosteen’ tonight – Cave stands and silently trots off towards a shaft of light coming in through an open door. He might still be alone, but after a performance like that, we’re with him all the way.
Nick Cave played:
‘Palaces of Montezuma’
‘Girl in Amber’
‘Man in the Moon’
‘Nobody’s Baby Now’
‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?’
‘Waiting for You’
‘The Mercy Seat’
‘Far From Me’
‘He Wants You’
‘Higgs Boson Blues’
‘Stranger Than Kindness’
‘Into My Arms’
‘The Ship Song’
‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’