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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan


The Forum, Kentish Town, London, June 20th 2007

The term ‘Special Guest’ is one that needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt when it comes to many gigs, but not, I have to say, tonight’s. Whether by design or coincidence we have two Mojo Awards winners on stage before the main event. Whiskyfun favourite Seasick Steve begins his set in typical style by strolling through the still half-empty stalls playing bottleneck on his bashed up acoustic guitar before climbing to the stage. It doesn’t feel like quite the venue for him but he makes a fair fist of enchanting those who are prepared to pull themselves away from the bar or noisy idle chatter. He’s won, by the way, ‘Breakthrough Act of the Year’, and well worthy of it he is.

Seasick Steve
Following him on stage are New York’s controversial synth and vocals duo Suicide, who’ve snatched the ‘Innovation in Sound’ award. Controversial? Well, not really. It’s just that they seem to have had a polarising effect on audiences ever since they started in 1970, and tonight is no exception. They are of course much admired and cited as inspirational by bands as diverse as the Chemical Brothers and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, but I guess that doesn’t mean that people have to like them. There is a kind of compulsion about the keyboard playing, Martin Rev finding bass notes lower than you might have thought existed. And to give him credit he does look as though he’s playing with his tongue at least half in his cheek (do you have this saying in French Serge?). Alan Vega’s echo driven vocals (more ranting than singing) are virtually unintelligible, and though he has forsaken his trademark chain wielding, he still goads and baits the audience. Once sinister, he now holds all the threat and menace of an arm-waving crazed old man at a wind-swept bus stop on a deserted South Shields sea-shore. But like the old man he does manage to piss almost everyone off big-time, which is perhaps the intention of this alienating stuff. It’s nasty, brutish, and not very short, but either way, the audience isn’t going anywhere. By now the pace is pretty rammed and no one wants to lose their spot. Oh yes – no chance of pictures as the Photographer has her hands pressed to her ears for the whole set.
We’re really here to see Nick Cave’s new band, Grinderman (who didn’t win a Mojo Award), a stripped down version of the Bad Seeds featuring Cave, Warren Ellis on violin and guitar, Martyn Casey on bass and the pink suited Jim Sclavunos on his pink drum kit. Now you might think that in these days of ‘unplugged’ and ‘acoustics sessions’ that this would mean a gentle and reflective version of the Bad Seeds, full of tender violin and piano. Not a bit of it – Grinderman is a brutal back-to basics distillation of Cave’s sound. You could almost think it’s a melody free zone (of course it’s not). Cave plays electric guitar on many of the songs, with only occasional forays to the keyboards. In some respects this is clearly inhibiting, certainly on his movement, but it also gives his vocals more immediacy, and less consideration. His playing is ‘primitive’ – fractured, spare and loud. Behind him is Ellis – switching between bouzouki, violin (mostly strummed and plucked, rarely bowed) and a small red guitar whose size belies the noise it generates (could this be the mysterious Fendocastor listed on the Grinderman album sleeve notes?). I’m not sure if he plays his Hohner Guitaret. He certainly never stops - with an array of percussive instruments at hand for idle moments. Casey and Sclavunos, as befits their garage style sound, provide the engine-power.
Grinderman ‘Grinderman’ is the opening song – a crotch hugging Cave, guitar slung behind his back, almost chanting the lyrics to a spare backing that like many of the songs is reminiscent of the Cave/Ellis soundtrack to the Cave written film The Proposition – particularly so ‘Electric Alice’ with its jarring loops. Ejaculating with sexual innuendo ‘Grinderman’, according to Sclavunos, also represents the way the band play – “we grind songs out” – hence the name of the album. And from Grinderman to the organ grinder’s monkey – the band’s nut clutching logo. Actually it’s a bit of a nut clutching collection of songs – many having a recurrent theme of the inadequacies and frailties of modern man. Listen to the Johnny Dowdesque ‘Go tell the women’ or ‘Love bomb’ (in which Cave manages a triumph of writing by getting both the BBC’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ and ‘Gardeners Question Time’ into the lyrics) and you’ll quickly get the point. The songs, said Cave, “are all deeply personal” – none more so, I would imagine, than the wonderful ‘Man in the moon” which dwells on childhood loss. This is a really enchanting piece that would not have been out of place on The Boatman’s Call, and is probably the nearest to a Bad Seeds piece. Otherwise it’s full on Grinderman, and when some one calls for a Bad Seeds song Cave is dismissive – “wrong band – that’s another band”.
The set comprises the album in a slightly reworked order. Cave is in captivating form – it’s hard to take your eyes off him, and the ears have no choice as the volume and intensity grows. It climaxes with the penultimate song – ‘No pussy blues’. “Nick” asked an interviewer, “Is there a deeper meaning to ‘No Pussy Blues’?”. “No, it’s about getting no fucking pussy”. And it’s hardly surprising as the miserable and misogynistic self-loving protagonist of the song works his way through a series of rebuffs to his advances – and I notice that it’s the ladies in the audience who cheer most loudly when Cave whispers the chorus line at the end of the song. But before that we’ve all had to endure the ear-splitting visceral instrumental sections between each verse – louder than the Bad Seeds I’d say, and I’d guess if you wanted to hear the influence of Suicide on Cave and his cohorts then it’s somewhere in here. They finish with the screaming ‘Love bomb’.
And then Cave dropped his own bombshell – “Thank you. We’ll be back in a few minutes with Suicide”. There was a visible rush to the door. The band remerged with Vega and Rev, the former sparring vocals with Cave, ‘though I have to say what they were singing about I couldn’t tell – the song, I believe, was ‘Harlem’. The audience dwindled in direct proportion to the noise, a shame really as the set had been so good. Cave eventually left the stage, exchanging grins and raised eyebrows with Casey as he did so, but Vega had to be persuaded off by his roadie about four minutes later, otherwise I suspect we might still be there. Suicide? Well it’s a deeply personal choice, but personally I wouldn’t. However I can commend Grinderman who delivered a five star high-nineties performance. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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