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Culture Reviews
Grinderman
Crocus City Hall 
By Martin Richardson
There are few artists with a back catalog so extensive that they can afford to junk almost all of it and still produce a satisfying show: Nick Cave's latest tour demonstrates that he might be one of them. Bringing his new band, Grinderman, to Moscow for the first time, the Aussie blues bard created a synthesis of his earliest music refracted through the prism of some of the glories of the Bad Seeds' output - but perhaps lacked that truly transcendental moment that defines his best gigs.

With those Bad Seeds, Cave is a prophet of Old Testament disaster: from the deus ex machina of "Red Right Hand", through the demanding idolatry of "Do You Love Me?" to the biblical storm unleashed on "Tupelo", it's the sound of plague-era Moses set to the Delta Blues. Throw in some twisted gospel and an ever more assured touch with a ballad and all creativity is there in a single act.

Yet the early days - now protected by a brand of omerta which leaves them all but struck from the official record - was a raucous punk project, The Birthday Party, blending industrial noise with calls to Release the Bats. Grinderman, finally, seeks to bring the two legacies together.

It's a stripped down four-piece, dominated by the fantastically bearded goblin-like figure of Warren Ellis, a familiar Bad Seed and a frenzied point of frantic energy as he pounds his cymbals with the maracas as if accompanying the horsemen of the apocalypse. Next to him, the improbably tall, impossibly slender Cave stalks like a malevolent stick insect: caught in the lights his shadow casts a predatory gloom across the hall; approaching the front of the stage his sheer rock-god charisma finds a willing audience of devoted acolytes driven by the prospect of even the briefest laying on of hands. The prophet still exerts an unholy influence on his fans.

But what of the music? It's bluesier, almost to the point of cliche when opening with a song beginning "I woke up this morning ...", but with a sound that churns up the muddy depths of the Mississippi and adds a dirty, grimy chugging intensity to the "three chords and the truth" formula beloved of the grainily recorded bluesmen beloved of my father. It's rougher, edgier, grittier than the Bad Seeds and - one acoustic number and the moving encore "Man in the Moon" aside - Grinderman largely spurns the ballads which so distinguished The Boatman's Call.

Instead it's back to the raw, experimental energy of the Birthday Party days. Songs stop sounding like real songs and become raw slabs of bleeding noise, punctuated by Cave's yelping. "Solitary Man" starts out as a love song - albeit a slightly obsessive and scary one - only to morph into the music of a man losing his grip altogether: "I just want to relax," squeals Cave, with a demented intensity which proves he never will. "No pussy blues", rude and crude as the title suggests, is another epic of frustration as a lovely girl who "just don't wanna" inspires ever more desperate outbursts of aural anger.

And yet, despite a typically top-notch performance of material which never drops below "interesting" and frequently edges towards "excellent", something from the show didn't quite work. The first time I saw Cave, in the appropriately faded grandeur of London's Brixton Academy, my date of the time rushed out to buy the entire Bad Seeds' back catalog the following day. This time, on the long metro ride back from Myakinino, my date was left lamenting a lack of inter-song banter - "He just got up, played them, and went away again" - while we both felt that the 90-minute set felt like short measure after the 2.5 hours we'd enjoyed when the "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!" tour came to Moscow two years ago. Maybe time will translate some of Grinderman's greatest moments into the kind of breathless release of musical magic generated by the insistent handclaps of "A Weeping Song" or the hushed euphoria of "Are you the one?", but right now it feels like a warm-up for a gig which never quite arrives. And thus, as frustrating as having the "No pussy blues".

03.07.11
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