Ministry farewell show nearly ignores band's history and Chicago roots

May 10, 2008


For longtime Ministry fans, it was a bittersweet night on Thursday as the long-running industrial/metal band played the first of a four-night stand at the House of Blues in the city where it formed in 1981.

The sadness wasn’t necessarily because the faithful believed bandleader Al Jourgensen’s claim that the “C U LaTour” is the band’s last, and that he’s not only retiring Ministry as a live act, but resigning himself to a future of merely producing other artists at the studio in his current home near El Paso, Texas. Nobody believes that an artist who’s recorded so prolifically and toured so often for so long really will disappear for good. Just take a look at the short-lived retirements of, say, Jay-Z and Billy Joel.

No, the melancholia of this night with Ministry came from the fact that the 49-year-old Jourgensen, the only constant through the band’s nearly three-decade history, did not use his advertised farewell jaunt to take stock of his many accomplishments and musical evolutions. Would it really have been too much to ask for some nod to those early singles with the pioneering and now sadly defunct Chicago Wax Trax! label? To sample more from groundbreaking albums such as “The Land of Rape and Honey” (1988) and “Dark Side of the Spoon” (1999), or to present a few special guests who made particular contributions to the group, first and foremost longtime bassist Paul Barker?

Jourgensen can be lauded in part for wanting to live in the present and stacking the nearly two-hour set largely with songs from the last three albums — “Houses of the Mole” (2004), “Rio Grande Blood” (2006) and “The Last Sucker” (2007) — all strong efforts, but fairly conventional and heavily metal compared to much of the band’s earlier work. But if this was really goodbye, it would have been nice to do more to acknowledge the segment of the audience who remembers Ministry before Ministry went mainstream.

Dressed like the Mad Hatter’s Satanic doppelganger, Jourgensen performed behind his long-since familiar and worn-out chain-link fence and steer antler mike stand as the video screen assaulted the crowd with the equally predictable flashes of George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, marching troops and all manner of military mayhem. But he barely played the guitar he cradled for a few tunes, and more than half of his vocal parts seemed to be on digital audio tape.

Meanwhile, the five hired hands of Ministry circa 2008 ripped through tunes such as “Let’s Go,” “Life is Good” and “Lieslieslies” with the requisite aggression and frenzied energy fans have come to expect through umpteen earlier tours. As always, it was a good night’s fun and games. But it was nothing that anyone hadn’t heard before.

The message: Fascism and capitalsm-uber-alles are bad! Thinking for yourself is good! Now hand over more than 40 dollars a ticket, please, while we play on autopilot.

Thinks that’s harsh? At one point, Jourgensen announced that he was going to “do some old ones. This one is called ‘N.W.O.!’” The band then launched into “No W,” the song that has occupied the sixth spot on the set list at every stop on the tour, with the Bush I-era critique of the New World Order being slotted in the first of two encores. Nonplussed, the singer delivered “No W” instead of “N.W.O.” just like the plan said he should. So much for the hell-raising, chaos-embracing, wrench-in-the-works Al of old.

When all was said and done, the night’s biggest concession to being back in Chicago for the alleged last time was that before taking the stage, the video screen flashed the Blackhawks logo as the sound system played “Keys to the City,” the track Ministry recently donated to the team for its new anthem. And the biggest nod to the group’s history and wild diversity was that it showed the video for the Revolting Cocks’ “I’m Not Gay.”

Somehow, that just wasn’t enough. But it will have to do until Jourgensen decides to un-retire.

Ministry performs again at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 p.m. Sunday with openers Meshuggah, the Swedish quintet whose experimental twist on doom/thrash is not only relentlessly powerful but thoroughly unique, and Hemlock, a completely generic thrash band from Las Vegas whose cliched stage patter only sullied the occasion further. (“Alright, House of Blues, let’s see those heads banging! ... Come on, Chicago, let’s see those devil’s horns!”)