Well, Nick Cave's sure as hell still got it. Getting to see that proven in the flesh Friday night was better than going to our own birthday party — which would've probably just involved swimming in a bottle of Jameson, crying by candle-light, penning depressing status updates and spinning Birthday Party records. This show was way darker and more awesome than that. And having so far spent our evening inhaling kick-ass barbecue and watching men in tights pile-driving and body-slamming each another to the sound of bad metal and little kids shouting "Fuck 'em up!" at USWO Stadium Inn wrestling, Grinderman — i.e. Nick Cave and half of the Bad Seeds with a Birthday Party-worthy makeover — had a lot to live up to.
By the time we made it into The Cannery Ballroom, Cave & Co. were a minute or 10 into their 90-minute set. The sold-out crowd already appeared enthralled by the braying cacophony filling the room and mesmerized by the man at center stage leading this ring of fire and fury. Clad in a chic get-up as black as the slicked-back, spindling coiffure that is his trademark, the lanky proto-goth, post-punk icon looked like a pale piece of putty that had been stretched out, singed and then dipped in oven grease as he stalked the stage like evil's answer to Jim Morrison — often fronting the band from behind a keyboard or a black Telecaster guitar.
With his signature baritone resonating, Cave crooned, howled, scowled and ranted profanity-laden diatribes lasciviously laced with grotesque images of horror, sex (or lack thereof) and death. His mounting rage was so tenuously controlled, it seemed he was about to lash out and strike us dead with a furrow of his ever-brooding brow or lash of his sharp tongue at any given moment. Leading his band of bearded bad seeds through a 16-song set of menacing cuts from their pair of full-lengths, Cave did not give the kind of performance you'd expect from a 53-year-old.
Cave is a fucking rock star — and an ageless one at that. He exuded a gut-churning grudge against serenity we didn't know singers still had the stones to go for these days. But he wasn't the only one scaring us. Cave's fellow Grindermen — guitarist, violinist and bouzoukist Warren Ellis, drummer Jim Sclavunos and bassist Martyn Casey — matched the singer's sinister fury tenfold with a shambolic, primal symphony of jarring clamor that fused the discordance of The Birthday Party's brash No Wave with the harsh industrial, goth-rock it inspired. Throughout set highlights like "Evil!," "Kitchenette" and the wash of psychedelia that was "Bellringer Blues," their assault on our senses was relentless and disorienting. And with their ZZ Top-trumping bristles, goose-bump-raising death stares and imposing power stances, they were almost as hard to gaze at without flinching as Cave.
It's worth noting that the band didn't play a single Birthday Party, Bad Seeds, or any other non-Grinder-designated number. It's also worth noting that we didn't even notice that, let alone mind it. We were so completely captivated — frightened, even — by the band's soul-crippling cacophony, which seemed almost tailor-made for The Cannery's cavernous confines, that we had a hard time pulling our eyes from the stage.
As regular readers can attest, we're really not used to paying THIS much attention to the bands we're seeing. Did some woman really spill wine on our jeans? Can't remember. Was Jack White standing next to us? So we're told. What were people in the crowd wearing? Who cares? Nick Cave was onstage, hell's house-band was backing him and our brains were melting out of our ears. Being deafened by such an auditory apocalypse while watching a living legend flail on the stage floor and work its wings like a fire-breathing bringer of death was as life-affirming as it was unsettling.