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Grinderman's Nick Cave kills panthers, steals wives at Music Box

December 1, 2010 |  5:40 pm

As Nick Cave and his fellow Grindermen opened with the blistering first track on their second album, “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man,” a couple holding hands plowed through Tuesday’s crowd at the Music Box. A conflict was evident: The woman wanted to dive into the morass; the man did too but not in the same brusque manner. They glared at each other as they broke hands forcibly enough to make everyone around them stand back.

The moment seemed cooked up from one of Grinderman’s vicious but empathetic tales about the endless power struggles between man and woman. If only one of them had been hanging onto a raggedy Bible or a vulture gun, the scene would’ve been complete. In Grinderman’s music, all kinds of wars are waged: between desire and need; middle-class security and existential angst; the man who gave you the plasma-screen TV to watch “Oprah” on and the psychosexual beast in your kitchenette that you’re not sure you should stab with a knife or simply surrender to.

In Grinderman (which generally bludgeons where Cave’s other current group, the Bad Seeds, likes to lacerate), the dark side always pulls hard, threatening to swallow the band, the listener and the song’s characters. But in Cave’s theatrics and vivid storytelling, he provides a surprisingly lucid beacon in the squall. Part Laurence Olivier in “King Lear,” part lunatic Dust Bowl-era evangelical preacher and all vulnerable, quivering ego, the only way Cave survives his own songs, it seems, is by taking the responsibility to narrate them.

At Tuesday night’s show, the final death blow of its month-long tour in support of “Grinderman 2,” the band was playing in such tight order that at times it almost felt over-rehearsed, overly meditated, but it didn’t seem to bother the crowd. The Music Box was heavily stocked with men perhaps finding purchase and fantasy in all the masculine identities Grinderman offers, if only in their own stage personas and all the more potent for their advanced (by rock and roll terms) age.

On one side, there was guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, all Shiva-like with his waggling arms and pointed violin bow; on the other, bassist Martyn P. Casey, who in his cream sports coat could’ve played a rumpled but wealthy coke pusher in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. And in the middle writhed Cave in silvery lights, his long torso nearly exposed from his open black button-down, his voice admirably supple, storming through falsetto and gut-vibrating low notes. In the back, drummer Jim Sclavunos remained a mysterious but towering force, raining epic blows on his kit, keeping a connected, steely backbone with Casey’s blood-deep bass.

Sometimes all the bombast made the band’s more contemplative numbers feel anticlimactic, even when rendered with Cave’s dusty acoustic guitar or the organ for the space-haunted “Man in the Moon” during the band’s generous encore. But it must be said that Cave’s ability to charge any instrument with lust remains unparalleled: The man plays tambourine like it’s a direct conduit of his virility. By any passage, this Austrailan pioneer will find a way to what’s luscious and profane, and it’s riveting to watch.

Cave sometimes plays the scoundrel or the stalker; at other times, he is the persecuted or the rejected. But he always operates with a code of ethics. The show’s undeniable highlight had to be Grinderman’s tense catalog of supplication and rejection, its title unprintable in our family newspaper. In the song, Cave plays the sweet little boy for so many women, and yet, still, she and maybe all of them, just doesn’t want to. Never, for all the song’s explosive temper, is some other more violent course of action suggested. Instead, in the song’s opening is the salve for the rejection that can ripple down into the deepest parts of the id.

“I must, above all things,” he sang repeatedly, thumping his chest, “love myself.”

-- Margaret Wappler

Video of "Kitchenette" from Tuesday night's show at the Music Box.