WORDS BY ROBBIE DADOMO-EDGINGTON
Although there truly is no substitute for live music, it seems experts have found the next best thing. Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace captures the intensity and beauty of Nick Cave’s music and live performance, and the experience is all from the comfort of your own home. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become a pretty regular occurrence for artists to livestream gigs, whether they be impromptu Instagram sets like Alex G in his bedroom or The Garden in their garage, or concerts with higher production value like Jarvis Cocker’s recent YouTube livestream. Whilst other artists have chosen to literally livestream their performances, here Nick Cave opted for a live experience of a pre-recorded event, in which viewers tuned in at the various allotted times for their respective regions and collectively watched this concert film, much in the same way that his previous film Distant Sky was a one night only event in cinemas, except this time you could watch it in your pyjamas with a hot chocolate. At least, that’s what I did.
The benefit of this approach is that Idiot Prayer was/is a positively cinematic experience. Shot by Robbie Ryan, cinematographer of Marriage Story and The Favourite, to name a few, Idiot Prayer has a gorgeous yet simplistic visual style which appreciates the beauty of the location and of the performances; from extreme long shots of Cave at the piano, dwarfed by the grand hall of Alexandra Palace, to closeups of his ring-laden fingers massaging tunes out of the piano and his intense gaze as he sings an (almost) career-spanning setlist of songs about love, songs about death, and songs about both.
The setlist itself was a superb selection of tracks from Cave’s five-decade career, from Sad Waters of Your Funeral… My Trial (1986) to cuts from 2019’s Ghosteen, as well as a new track titled Euthanasia. Due to the nature of the performance, with Cave alone at the piano, the songs all have a more stripped back skeletal quality, which rather than taking away from the songs, distils them into their core elements, and reaffirms Cave’s talents as a songwriter and musician. Of course, some tracks like those from The Boatman’s Call, are closer to their recorded versions, but others are true reimaginings. If you were to listen to the album version of Papa Won’t Leave You Henry, a raucous and frenetic number, you couldn’t possibly imagine it being an equally intense, but all-the-more delicate and mesmerizing solo piano affair. But with Idiot Prayer, Cave’s reimaging of his songs works wonders, setting them apart from their original recordings and creating an overall unique experience that urges one to revisit it.
Unfortunately, it seems rather unlikely that Idiot Prayer can be revisited, at least for the time being, as it was billed on the fact it was a livestream and a one night only event. After all, there has still not been a DVD/Blu-ray release for 2018’s Distant Sky. For now though, I can be content to keep my fingers crossed and cherish the experience.
With all that in mind, it would be remiss of me not to mention technical hiccups, as the delivery of these types of events is just as crucial as the content itself. Whilst they were unable to ruin things for me, there were certainly challenges when it came to streaming the film. Despite being advertised as compatible with Chromecast, when I started the stream on my phone there was no option to cast, which meant I had to screencast, and anyone who’s tried such a thing would know it results in a bit of a jittery experience that sacrifices quality. Eventually, when that stopped working, I moved over to a different device and had a smoother, yet imperfect, viewing experience. Fortunately, the ability to pause, rewind and fast-forward was available, meaning I was able to catch up on what I had missed, and even watch some of the tracks again. This feature was made available after a torrent of complaints from viewers in Australia, who found the stream to be extremely unreliable. Although they were able to remedy these issues by the time it got to the UK, it still suggests that these types of events have a little bit further to go.
Despite these technical issues, Idiot Prayer was a fantastic experience and without a doubt the next best thing to a live concert. Perhaps technical issues make it all a bit more realistic, the equivalent of a really tall bloke standing in front of you at a gig, or someone spilling their beer down your leg. Despite not actually being live, the show captured the essence of Nick Cave’s live solo performances and served as a reminder of his immense talent and the depth of his catalogue. This symbiosis of concert film and live event was, on the whole, a successful endeavour, and a perfect combination of the musical and cinematic experiences. Whilst we can never replace live in-the-flesh music, events like this deserve a place in the culture, as they are unique from live music, in that they deliver a communal yet thoroughly intimate experience, something that is hard to replicate in live settings for artists of Nick Cave’s stature.