Grinding it out

Via The Vine, a review of a Grinderman show here recently – reposting it here as I was quite happy with it (and because I really need to remember to post more work here):

Grinderman
Best Buy Theater, New York
Sunday 14 November 2010

It’s Griderman Sunday at New York’s Best Buy Theater, a sizeable two-tier venue just off the hypercolour crapfest that is Times Square. To give you an idea, this place generally hosts people like Joe Satriani and Linkin Park, but tonight punters have paid $50 a head (including a $8.50 “service fee”, apparently) to see Nick Cave’s hirsute four-piece. The celebrities, who have clearly not paid a $8.50 service fee, are out in force in the VIP reserve on a balcony overlooking the stage: The Vine spies Nick Zinner, Eugene Hutz, the surly Sikh conductor from The Darjeeling Limited and, um, DAVE MOTHERFUCKING GAHAN, who we end up spending most of the evening standing right next to. This just doesn’t happen at Festival Hall.

It’s no small feat for Grinderman to have sold this place out, either. It accommodates 2,100 people, and while Cave obviously has more of a cult appeal here than he does in his native land – the Nick Cave exhibition won’t be opening any time here soon – he’s clearly still got a decent old fanbase. The crowd tonight is an interesting mix: old stagers from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Cave obsessives in head-to-toe black, trust-fund kids who’d probably have ridden their fixies here over the Williamsburg bridge if it wasn’t freezing out, curious preppy types in smart casual, Australian ex-pats, hipsters, European tourists, long-haired metal dudes. As the lights go down and the band emerge onto the stage, The Vine finds itself wondering whether you’d see all these types at a Bad Seeds show.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why people like Grinderman: their music is immediate and visceral, full of snarl and bite. Of course, that’s kinda the point of the whole thing: if you’re Cave, you get to forget the complications of the Bad Seeds, strap on a guitar that you can’t really play very well, get together with some of your mates, grow beards, and make a good old racket. The tone was set by the initial Grinderman press release back in 2007, which described the band as “foul-mouthed, noisy, hairy, and damn well old enough to know better”.

But that presser also gets to the heart of the problem with the Grinderman project: there’s something uncomfortably self-referential about the whole thing, the air of an in-joke. It’s an air that’s in full evidence tonight. There are times that Grinderman feels a bit like U2’s Pop era – a nudge-nudge-wink-wink creative left turn that seems to exist as much for its creators’ amusement as it does to make any sort of artistic statement.

The result is that the songs feel secondary to the project as a whole. The key point with Grinderman is that they’re loud and hairy, not that they’re a vehicle for Cave’s best songs. There are exceptions, sure – the sheer leg-humping, emasculated intensity of ‘No Pussy Blues’ allows it to transcend the occasional bodgy couplet, while ‘Grinderman’ the song retains some of the latent menace Cave exuded in the days of ‘Tupelo’, ‘Deanna’ et al. As a whole, the show tonight sounds great – Warren Ellis’ fingerprints are all over the live show, just like they are over both records – but still, the fact remains that these songs are largely unremarkable by Cave’s standards.

Not that anyone here really cares, mind you. The crowd loves it. The New York Times loves it. The tastemakers at Brooklyn Vegan love it too. Cave’s in fine form, prowling the front of the stage, pulling out his best rock’n’roll moves, high fiving the crowd. It looks fun. And hell, up there on stage in New York City,  just rocking out with your mates, with 2,000 people lapping it up, it must be.

Perhaps the burden of being one of the greatest lyricists and songwriters of the last 30 years is that people tend to expect a lot of you, and perhaps that’s in part what the whole Grinderman project is a reaction to. And hey, perhaps Nick Cave doesn’t have to take himself seriously all the time. But still, the fact remains: that’s the man who wrote ‘The Mercy Seat’ up there on stage. And he’s singing lyrics like “I put your fingers in your… biscuit jar!” like some cackling latter-day rock’n’roll Sid James. Sure, you can laugh along, nod your head, enjoy the show. But ultimately, the spectacle feels a little hollow.

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