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When Nick Cave ignited his Grinderman project in early 2007, press releases spoke of a desire to get into the studio as regularly possible and away from the stately pace of record company-scheduled biennial album releases. Two years after the last of Cave’s Bad Seeds records, Grinderman 2 limbered up entirely when you might have predicted. But while this stripped down, roughed up alias may have failed to provide an alternative history for Cave and his cohorts, recording under a new name has offered them an effective strategy to stage live shows that focus on a small slice of their recent work, without the weight of that towering back-catalogue on their setlist. There are well in excess of 100 recorded Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds songs (each, no doubt, the favourite of some fan or another), all neatly sidestepped, with no one at the Hammersmith Apollo realistically likely to go home disappointed they didn’t play ‘Red Right Hand’.
The slender songbook Grinderman have amassed is at least now ample enough for a suitably lengthy set, and of the 20 tracks contained on the two Grinderman albums, 16 make an appearance. These are, of course, amongst the most bloody works of Cave’s later career, their lyrics largely ad-libbed in the studio rather than laboured over in the home office, and the veteran frontman gives a suitably raging performance. Cave has always known how to give his audience exactly what they want, even if, early in his career, he deemed that to be a literal kick in the teeth. Here things are no different: ‘Heathen Child’ sees him enraged, charging at the audience, howling “gimme the fucking money” before storming back to his keyboard to thrash out a solo.
Cave’s frame, skinny as it is, dominates proceedings; as has become customary, his long black shadows stretch up the sides of the auditorium as he frequently finds himself pulled by some invisible force to the tip of the stage. As he storms about with violent intent it is pointedly an effort to afford Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos or Martin P. Casey any attention at all. With some concentration it is clear that Warren Ellis, the man responsible for the squalid loops of noise that - alongside Cave’s adoption of the guitar on his ‘solo’ tours of a few years ago - kick-started the whole Grinderman project, was giving damn fine support for much of the show as a hunched rhythm guitarist, most effectively on the juggernaut that is ‘Palaces of Montezuma’.
Of course, Cave’s not actually angry at all. There has been much criticism of Grinderman’s alleged misogyny, but little of it has engaged with it as performance. It’s a performance of deadly ferocity, but a performance nonetheless. The band have been criticised as middle-aged men playing at rock rebellion, but they are more properly ‘playing’ rebellion, and playing it consummately. Where some critics have obtusely refused to accept it’s all an act (and one that engages with a depth of musical, as well as sexual, history), the band must be hailed for their act onstage. Cave’s deadpan delivery is truly menacing, even as he spouts the oft-derided feminist-baiting one-liner about “consensual rape in the afternoon” in ‘Go Tell The Women’, or the more conventionally ludicrous, and even more widely quoted, joke about being like the Loch Ness monster in ‘Worm Tamer’.
The performative spell is briefly broken during an enforced break in proceedings when damage to Martin Casey’s amp must be fixed. Cave encourages Ellis to say “a few words”, Ellis mumbles a quick “thank-you” to grand applause, then Cave makes an apologetic attempt to explain the meaning of the next song, and the pair appear like a couple of boys caught being naughty. When it finally arrives ‘Love Bomb’ retains its staggering swagger and Cave’s poise is fully regained.
There are other imperfections too: the constriction of Cave’s usually elaborate movement when he picks up the guitar to rigidly concentrate on an instrument he is still a novice on; the sense that the original batch of Grinderman songs outmatch the new. But the vertiginous glories on show outweigh any such qualms. As Cave wrests spayed demons from his guttural guitar on the closing ‘Grinderman’ and a frazzled Ellis beats his cymbals into submission with a pair of shakers, there can be few doubting the excellence of what has just occurred. It’s just that they didn’t play ‘Red Right Hand’, though.
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