Grinderman at Metro

What is Grinderman? It’s really just Nick Cave playing with a smaller unit from his usual big group, the Bad Seeds. I loved the apocalyptically huge sound of Cave’s most recent Bad Seeds double album, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, which came complete with a gospel choir. But there’s also something to be said for pounding out rock songs with a just a few musicians. That what Cave does on Grinderman, a strong record that ranks with his best work. There are a few mellower moments on the album (mellow in a way that’s still pretty intense), but the overriding sound is driving rock, with Cave playing more electric guitar than he has in the past and singing with unbridled emotion. He finds an original way of expressing the classic rock-song premise of frustrated lust with one of 2007’s best songs, “No Pussy Blues.”

Chicago was lucky enough to get one of just four Grinderman concerts scheduled in the U.S. (one is opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden in New York, and the other two are in San Francisco). It was exciting to see Cave in a club like Metro.

Cave always performs like he means it, and the show last night (July 25) was no exception. Sporting a modified-Fu Manchu-style mustache, Cave kicked his legs at the crowd, gestured with his arms like a mad preacher and wielded his guitar like a prop — grabbing it at key moments for loud bursts of notes. The rather hirsute Warren Ellis made lots of noise, too, with a peculiar miniature electric guitar, a violin and shakers, while bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos kept the rhythms tense all night. At some points, Cave added little purrs, moans and other vocal tics to his singing, making the songs seem almost like spontaneous creations rather than well-rehearsed compositions.

After playing the entire Grinderman album (though not in order), Cave and his cohorts left the stage, then came back for two encores of Bad Seeds tunes, with Cave sitting down at the piano for the first time all night. The first encore was “Red Right Hand,” “The Weeping Song,” “Deanna” and “The Lyre of Orpheus.” The second encore was “The Ship Song” and “Jack the Ripper.” Some of the audience requests for other Bad Seeds songs caused Cave to protest that he did not have enough musicians present to pull off the bigger-sounding numbers. And in fact, the Bad Seeds that he did play seemed fairly stripped down, with an impromptu looseness. That didn’t detract at all from how great they were, though. This was surely one of the year’s best concerts in Chicago. (I’ve said that a few times recently, but I think the shows by Grinderman, the Wrens, the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists are near the top of my list right now.) Cave departed with a promise. “See you next year with the Bad Seeds,” he said. I can’t wait.

See my photos of Grinderman. My photos will also be featured on Spin magazine’s web site.
The opening band was Digital Primitives, which is a ridiculous name for a fairly good jazz trio. It was an odd choice for an opening act, but I like the group’s mix of jazz, Eastern music and spoken-word rants.

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