Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nick Cave, David Murray & Kahil El'Zabar

Last week, I attempted, in vain, to try and transcribe my November 2016 interview with David Murray. The intention was to post a last-minute preview for his appearance with Kahil El'Zabar, which happened last Sunday, June 4 at the James Street Gastropub. For technical reasons, let's say, it didn't happen. I'm pretty sure this idea popped up last on Thursday, less than 24 hours before the big fundraiser/carnival at my son's school, which I assisted in putting together - and, like everything else, had me all stressed out. My focus wasn't there so it never got done.

Back in early December, bassist Harrison Bankhead came to town with Murray and El'Zabar, but last week, it was just the two of them. If any two guys can make a big show out of a duo, it's these two.

The format of their two sets followed a similar path as most of El'Zabar's appearances with his other groups, like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. It began with El'Zabar plucking out a slow drone on the kalimba, keeping a pulse on bells attached to his right ankle. Murray played all over it, eventually joining El'Zabar vocally. Then El'Zabar switched to the trap kit, which seemed to be tuned to play a drone underneath the tenor. The third piece moved the percussionist to the hand drum, a cajon, or something like it. Murray also played bass clarinet in both sets. I love the percussive thunk he gets out of the instrument, in addition to the ease with which he peels off some great, emotional lines.

At the beginning of the evening, I was standing out in the stairwell of James Street, talking to local guitarist Colter Harper about Chasing Trane, the John Coltrane documentary that had just finished a run here. Murray was walking downstairs mid-way through our conversation, and chimed in, knowing what the topic was. He said Bill Clinton made one of the most profound statements in the film. "Do you remember what he said," Murray inquired. I had seen the movie twice, but couldn't recall what he was referring to. Clinton, he reminded me, said that Coltrane did, for music, the same thing Pablo Picasso did for art, in 50 less years. "I thought that was really profound," he said. I wished I would've remembered that more than Carlos Santana's ridiculous hippie-metaphor about Trane's music.


I wrote a preview for Nick Cave's Pittsburgh show for City Paper, even though the concert was already sold out. Since Cave wasn't doing interviews, and since I only had 500 words to fill, I pulled a few quotes from another interview. It ended up running online only, not in the print issue. For that reason, I didn't feel like pushing for a comp. So I resigned myself to skipping the show.

At 5:00 on Thursday afternoon, Jennie called me saying that the cousin of a friend of ours had an extra ticket, and that I should get in touch with him. (She was okay with me going without her.) So connections were made and - wham - there I was in the first balcony, left center, taking in the show that everyone will probably be talking about for years to come.

I'm sure there are naysayers out there. You know, the ones who never liked Nick Cave in the first place or thought he was overly dramatic or cheesy. But for the rest of us - it was like going to church. If I said that about Patti Smith's concert in the same venue earlier this year, well... this was a different kind of church. This was fire and brimstone. This was Jesus walking on water. There were no bodies of water in the Carnegie Music Hall, but if there were, brothers and sisters, he probably would have walked on them. Instead, Cave just walked across the seats in the first few rows, singing to people, getting lifted up by others (or at least supported by them, as some friends of mine confessed online) and finally inviting a whole slew of folks onstage to sing with him.

Before the show started, it was kind of funny at first to see a chair set up center stage with a microphone in front of it, as if Nick was going to sit casually for the whole set, maybe having a drink and talking to us between songs. But that lasted for just one song, "Anthrocene." Once it was done he could've just chucked the seat but he politely moved it to the side so it was easier for him to pace the stage as he sang. The next few songs, which also came from Skeleton Tree or Push the Sky Away, were all mid-tempo and simple, but this format is Cave's bread and butter. No one can make turn a plodding groove into a masterful story like this guy.

So when he finally kicked up the mood with "From Her to Eternity," we were more than ready. Having listened to this song so many times at home on the album of the same name, I had certain expectations and hopes for what it would sound like live. Warren Ellis started ravaging his violin, creating the same kind of racket as Blixa Bargeld's guitar does in the original version, and it nearly blew my head off. He was plinking it like a guitar and kicking pedals on and off, making it explode with feedback. Behind him, the group pounded away on the monochord beat and vibraphone counterpoint which, I discovered after 32 years, is in 5/4. All this time, I thought they were just hoping for the best, and that if all went well, they'd interlock on instinct.

That's the interesting thing about Cave's music. It's pretty simple on the surface: two chords (give or take) repeated over and over, eventually changing to a third chord. But it takes good ears and skill to make sure you make those changes. A few times they didn't. Or else Cave improvised a little bit and the band got to change before he did. During one song, he called out to the band to back things up to the break, and repeat from there. Another time, he called out bassist Martyn Casey, good-naturedly.

A performer as well-known as Nick Cave probably has some, shall we say, crack-pot fans. (The late, great Pittsburgh scenester Lee Conley was an obsessive, but he was more as an enthusiast, in the best sense.) There were people in the audience who thought Cave was having a one-on-one conversation with them, and couldn't let it go after shouting one or two things. That's more annoying than anything else. But what slayed me was the guy's lack of inhibition when it came stepping off the stage into the audience. He's opening himself up for all sorts of danger, and he has no fear as he does it. (Of course, any nut who would harm a hair on Nick Cave's head would probably get beaten to death immediately by the audience.)

This might burst some people's bubble, but in a recent GQ article, Cave said there "a banal, practical" aspect to his habit of singing to the first 50 people: his eyesight isn't too good, so he can't see much beyond the first two rows. He might not be quite as connected with the audience as it seemed. On the other hand, the article makes it sound like the most Cave does is walk to the edge of the stage. Last week, he was offstage, in the aisle, walking across the seats that were now empty because everyone was in the aisles, hoping to get their hands on him. Maybe he really does love us more, who knows?

Then for the encore, he invited a few people onstage, and then a few more. And a few more. Then a few more followed suit. How many, I can't tell you. I was thinking maybe 75-80. The Post-Gazette estimated closer to 100. (Incidentally, Scott Mervis wrote a fine review that gives more specifics about what they played and how it sounded. Check it out here.) Everyone sang along for "Pushing the Sky Away," a touching song that sent us all home in awe.

While Cave is certainly a dramatic performer, who isn't opposed to raising his hands towards the audience to get a reaction, the gesture wasn't mere showbiz. This wasn't the cliched gesture of a singer acting pointing towards himself during the adulation, arrogantly (or ironically) meaning, "Give me more." Cave seemed to be in a sharing mood, like we were all part of the show, and that's why everyone seemed so blown away by the whole thing. We're with him. During the loud section at the end of the organ solo in "Red Right Hand," he ran into the crowd quickly and ran back onstage to sing the next verse. It felt like he had just run the living room at a party, yelled a wild salutation, and ran right back out.

No comments: