A poet, a playwright and a novelist in addition to being a prolific songwriter with a devoted cult following, he’s led a legendary punk band (the Birthday Party), he’s scored an unlikely pop hit (dueting with Kylie Minogue) and he’s even been covered by Johnny Cash (who included “The Mercy Seat” on “American Recordings III: Solitary Man”).
“What I’m really concerned about is creating something that I feel is a step forward for myself,” Cave told me in 2002. “That’s not always easy. There are times when I’m in the studio writing again, and it just sounds like something else I’ve already written.”
Countless are the artists who’ve atrophied by the time they’ve reached the three-decade mark in their careers. But instead of resting on his laurels, Cave is reaching new heights. On record — with last year’s self-titled Grinderman album and his new disc with the Bad Seeds, “Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!” — and in live performance — last year at Metro and Sunday at the Riviera Theatre during the first of a two-night stand — the man was simply on fire.
“Get ready to shield yourself,” the tall and imposing front man sang in the new album’s “Night of the Lotus Eaters” as he and the current seven-piece incarnation of the Bad Seeds took the stage. But there was no hiding and really no need for shelter. From that impressive start through the bravura finale of “Stagger Lee” nearly two hours later, the show was a thrilling, dramatic and unrelentingly energetic tour de force.
Staving off a midlife crisis, Cave, who has always written at the piano, taught himself to play that favorite teenage instrument the electric guitar just three years ago, and it has brought new fury to his work, first with Grinderman and now with the Bad Seeds. The lush orchestrations of his big backing band were still there, along with the polyrhythmic push of two drummers. But there also was a new, noisy chaos, both in reworked versions of classics such as “Red Right Hand,” “The Weeping Song” and “The Mercy Seat,” and in new standouts including “We Call Upon the Author,” “Midnight Man” and a sequel to the story of Lazarus that finds the Biblical character ending up as a junkie in New York City.
When Cave played guitar on some of these newer songs, it was with a frenzied power that more than matched the six-string and violin virtuosity of his most valuable co-conspirator, Warren Ellis. It was as if Cave was Lou Reed to Ellis’ Sterling Morrison, so it was only fitting that the band paid tribute to the Velvet Underground with the loving homage of “Today’s Lesson.”
Whether he’s performing with the Bad Seeds or playing stripped-down and semi-acoustic, as he did at the Park West in 2001, Cave always uses his set lists to remind listeners how many indelibly great tunes he has written. In terms of timeless songs about the American experience, which remains this native Australian’s favorite theme, his catalog rapidly is approaching the volume of riches of a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan, something Cash and Minogue recognized, among many other peers, even if the record-buying public still has not caught on in a major way.
Cave did that at the Riviera, too. But he was as much driven punk as accomplished songwriter, equal parts whirling dervish and subtle, funny and incisive tunesmith, and the combination made for a mind-blowing evening.