There are some Nick Cave fans who still insist that the singer peaked in intensity during his early years with the Birthday Party, steadily progressing — or descending — from wild man of the outback to more stately singer/songwriter. Yet throughout his subsequent career with the Bad Seeds and as a solo artist, Cave has proved himself again and again no less intense than he’s ever been. It’s just that he’s practiced and perfected new ways of being intense.
The latest is his Grinderman project, an intentionally bashed-off chunk of rough and ready songs recorded quickly with a handful of the Bad Seeds. The group’s self-titled debut emphasizes noise over melody, and the songs themselves underscore in their ragged simplicity everything wrong with the latest Stooges reunion by beating Cave’s idol Iggy at his own game.
Indeed, sometimes it takes a totally no-nonsense performance to place in perspective all the true nonsense too many artists dish out on a nightly basis. When Grinderman — which features Cave, multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos — played the modestly sized and absolutely packed Metro, the group was clearly out for blood from the start. Their cigarettes glowing menacingly in the dark before the lights went up, the group started with their namesake song “Grinderman” before proceeding to tear through the album in its entirety (albeit in a different order).
Wielding his guitar and organ more as noise generators than melodic devices, Cave helped drum up the scary dissonance of “Get It On,” “Depth Charge Alice” and “Electric Alice.” During the relentless “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)” he teetered on the edge of the stage buzzing madly into his microphone, and with a loose rendition of “Go Tell the Women” he revealed one of the biggest differences between the Cave of, say, 1980 and the Cave of today: his sense of dark humor. Cave’s one of the few performers who can reel off a casual line about consensual rape that draws huge cheers.
As frontman, Cave had the luxury of free movement, but that didn’t necessarily make him the show’s sole focus. Sclavunos and Casey formed a deadly serious rhythm section, with the former a precise powerhouse who traded flashy fills for simply hitting his set as hard as he could. As for Ellis, all that need be said of Cave’s right hand man is that the erstwhile violinist barely touched that instrument all night, and even then only picked up a bow once or twice. The rest of the time he spent bashing cymbals with maracas, tooling with a table of effects or relishing the irony of pulling sheets of feedback from his tiny guitar and bouzouki.
With only a single album to their name, Grinderman was over and done with in under an hour, but to the pleasant surprise of the thrilled crowd, Cave and crew emerged once again for a short set of Bad Seeds favorites, or at least whatever they could pull off as a four piece. “We don’t have the equipment,” Cave declared. “We don’t have the musicians!”
Still, the four did surprisingly well playing pared-down versions of “Red Right Hand,” “The Weeping Song,” “Oh Diana” and “The Lyre of Orpheus.” Like watching a great fighter limit his powers by tying a hand behind his back, Grinderman playing the Bad Seeds was a fun way to see them reclaim their garage band roots. Artificially, perhaps, but no less effectively.