Twelve years on and here I am, I thought as I stood outside the Phoenix Concert Theatre Thursday night, shivering and thirsty and impatient. Here I am again to see this man and his noisy band. Well.
It was at the exact same location that I experienced the wonder of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in September 1998. That was a different time, and a vastly different place for me emotionally and spiritually, but experiencing the wonder of Grinderman live was a beautiful kind of awakening and embrace -of age, maturity, confidence, and the keen understand that rock and roll is not, in fact, a young man’s game. The raucous four-piece band started their North American tour here in Toronto, and what a holy noise they made. There was a mix of dread at my own sentimentality coupled with an intense curiosity, mainly because I am a new convert to Cave’s “side” project (I write it that way because the band feels more and more like a main event, musically and creatively) and I haven’t been following Cave’s work as keenly as at the ass-end of the 90s. In fact, the last time I saw Nick Cave perform live was in 1999 as part of his own programmed Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in 1999. Lives change, tastes shift, other experiences come and go. And yet and yet.
In seeing this same group of men perform together in the past, comparisons are inevitable. Cave, along with percussionist Sclavunos, violinist/guitarist Ellis, and bassist Martyn Casey, formed Grinderman in 2006. Now touring their second album, the band’s sound conjures a surreal if wholly intoxicating combination of old-soul confidence, middle-aged angst and youthful musicality: turn it up, balls out, blindfold on, 100 miles an hour, wear something smart, don’t do anything stupid. And if you don’t like it, get out hell of the car. The ride Grinderman provides -as listeners, though moreso, in a live setting -is thrilling, and utterly enveloping in its monstrous magic. It’s one ride I was horribly overdue in taking, and all nerves aside at going to a rock show solo, I’m so very, very glad I did. Huzzah for inspiring friends and the kindness of strangers.
Still, I was reminded more than once I’m not that young girl from 1998. Some of us folk at the front had been standing about four or five hours by the time Grinderman took to the stage. Ouch. I can relate to the frustrated disgust in Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues”: “I must above all things… love myself!” Ha. There’s something about Cave’s wry observations on aging and attraction to (and of) the opposite sex I find comforting to hear, especially amidst the sonic cacophony that howls over having “no pussy blues.” Semantics aside, it’s a sentiment many -especially those in the mid-30s-and-up crowd Thursday -could relate to.
Thankfully, the physical discomfort melted away, slowly but surely, over the course of the show. With stage crew flashlights providing tiny points of light, Sclavunos, Casey, Ellis and Cave, all stylishly attired in beautiful, tailored suits, came on to thunderous cheers and clamour. “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” was a blistering, brutal opening. “And he sucked her /and he sucked her /and he sucked her dry…” That nasty, repeated refrain spat out with aplomb by Cave and crew was possibly the best revenge on a world where cinematic vampires are sugary-safe and vamps are princessy teens with raccoon eyes. Cave slung his guitar like he was born to do it, and any sentimentality over his Seed-y times playing a grand piano was quickly erased by the look of determined, comfortable confidence he wore as easily as his natty dark suit. Dressed in black, with silver strands of charmed necklaces dangling from his neck, his left hand adorned with jeweled rings, Cave (now 53, and handsome as hell) was the picture of supreme rock and rollery, by turns theatrical, boyish, leering, scary, and always, always utterly magnetic.
Watching him work the room, mere feet (sometimes inches) away from me, I had a moment of questioning whether this was an act, this scenery-chewing, Artaud-like rioting. Real? Not-real? All the lines get so blurry in live performances, and over the course of ten years, those lines have shifted and moved in sometimes thrilling, sometimes bewildering ways for me. I know this much: Cave is a supremely good frontman. His exchanges with the audience were both sincere and enigmatic. Like the good rock and roll man he is, he likes to keep a bit of mystery intact, but there’s no denying the push-pull of fear and attraction within that onstage persona. Like in 1998, the audience noticeably leaned back whenever Cave came a-clomping, in shiny black patent-leather shoes, to proclaim his Grinderman gospel. Hot damn, we couldn’t take our eyes off him, and he definitely fed off us; venturing onto a side speaker to shriek the spoken-word intro to “Get It On” was like a profane pirate mass, with a chorus of voices all shrieking the same words, or playing call and response to his every gesture. During “Heathen Child”, Cave prowled along the edge of the stage, pointing, grabbing hands, shaking hips. At one point he took the hand of a very short girl who was behind a very tall man and dragged her up to the front. She looked up and, blushing, smiled in gratitude, but Cave kept on going, not looking down to meet her blissed-out gaze. Lesson? Do the right thing and get the hell on with it.
That mystery-man persona cracked somewhat in Cave’s onstage chemistry with his bandmates. There was something undeniably beguiling about the tiny smiles that would come bubbling up or bursting out, whether it was playing the keyboard, or (usually) guitar, or (most often) exchanged between he and Ellis. This came to the fore during “Get It On”, the third number played live, when Cave, lost in the song’s aggro-sexy groove, literally shoved Ellis to the ground, mosh-style. It was a weirdly comic moment, and totally indicative of the good-natured fellowship between the band members. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cave smile so much, so naturally, onstage, ever. Dark Lord, my ass. The words to the songs might be dark, but they’re one aspect of a very complex, deeply curious mind. The mind that produced the gory fairytale of “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” and the restless drama of “Love Bomb” (not to mention the depraved surrealism of “The Death Of Bunny Munro“, a book I liked a lot) also produced “The Palaces of Montezuma”, with beautiful lines like “a Java princess of Hindu Birth / a woman of flesh / a child of earth / I give to you“. This was easily one of my favorite songs live – the marriage of noise, melody, words and beats was perfect. It felt like a melodic, gentle grace amidst the yowling feedback and aggressive stomping.
What?, you’re saying, grace? Grinderman?! Never the twain would’ve met within the world of the first album (from 2007) but, as the band’s members grow and change, so does the music. This is good. It’s not all thudding boom-boom-boom and static-like feedback, though those still play hugely important roles sonically, and I’d argue, spiritually. It was the kind of booming thud you felt within the depth of your spinal column, going straight to that strange, intangible thing called “soul.” Again, this is good. The stage featured an extensive array of percussive equipment which Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis whacked with great enthusiasm and skilled showmanship, but it’s notable how much the other instruments contributed to the percussive sound of the band too: guitars, pianos, even sequenced loops were all used to great percussive -and, it must be noted, theatrical -effect to create a sound I can only describe as raw, primal rock and roll. (Sidenote: CIUT‘s Chris Berube did an interview with Big Jim, which you can listen to/download here. They talk about how that primal sound got created -and it sounds like fun.) This clearly isn’t meant to be a band of high art or instrumental virtuosos (not that they all aren’t a hugely, ridiculously talented bunch -they are) -but perfection and tidiness aren’t the point at all. Noise is. And sometimes, subtlety makes it in there too. It’s all about balance.
Which is why I couldn’t help but think of Blixa Bargeld, who sits in my head as the godfather of the noisy feedback-meets-percussive-ear-bleeding chaos-meets-creepy-subtlety sound that emanated from the stage of the Phoenix Thursday night. Blixa was the longtime guitarist for the Bad Seeds until his departure in 2003, and is now touring with his original band, the hugely influential Einsturzende Neubaten (they’ll be in Toronto next month; yes, I’m seeing them). So does this audible influence take away from Grinderman’s originality? Not one bit. What separates this band from its Teutonic forebears is the blood-and-guts emotionalism its members put into every moment, combined with a palpable sense of theatre and a wrenching forward-sweeping sonic momentum that combines deep dread and high exuberance in one thrilling ride. Warren Ellis is one seriously talented (and prolific) man. I’ve seen him play many times with renowned band The Dirty Three, and while his musical forays into crazyman-land may seem loopy half-cocked, they’re all carefully, meticulously considered, and executed with a maximum of compelling kick-ass mayhem. Really, there’s nothing quite like the brilliant cacophony Grinderman creates live. No wonder their North American shows have sold out. This is rock and roll at its best. I’m so glad I was there. It was a return, and a new beginning, all at once. My ears are still ringing, and my heart’s in knots. Hail hail, the Grinderman. I thought you’d never come.