I saw The Cure way back on October 10, 1985 in Santa Barbara, California supporting their smash album The Head On The Door, from that same year. While it was a powerful and emotional show in parts, I was ultimately disappointed with the stoic stage presence of the band. In particular, founder Robert Smith seemed to be napping through long stretches of the set list, only coming alive it seemed for the couple of hits at the end of the concert. In part my California roots drove my perceptions at the time; the gloomy mysteriousness of goth music, while connecting well in gritty San Francisco, was in part lost on the audience in sunny southern California. The band at the time was also right on the cusp of greater stardom, with just a few popular hits like “Let’s Go to Bed” and “In Between Days” overshadowed by darker dirges such as “A Forest.” A standout memory for me was their performance of “A Night Like This,” which bridged the two forms, it’s prolonged menacing prologue leading to a heartfelt reading of the chorus:
I’m coming to find you if it takes me all night
Can’t stand here like this anymore
For always and ever is always for you
I want it to be perfect
I want to change it all
Smith’s songs while sometimes quirky and playful are most often laden with sadness, relating stories of lost love, unbearable pain, or outright anger and hatred. While that might sound like torture to some, these songs have an ability to access deep-seated emotions in listeners, unlocking these feelings, even allowing for their release. The greatest melancholy music can do this. It can support a bit of wallowing, but a lot of healing as well. The Cure has always walked this line skillfully. That fact was gloriously on full display last Thursday May 26th at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, just south of San Francisco where so many of us first fell in love with the band. I took my daughter Elaina for her first Cure show, and my second, 30 years on. It was everything my first time wasn’t.
On this night, The Cure took the stage beginning with the bluesy dirge “Open” from Wish (1992). It was clear from the first minutes that Smith was in top form, fronting one of the tightest lineups of his oft-changing collective. Robert Smith has been the only consistent member of The Cure since it’s inception in 1976 and as principal composer and vocalist, its driving force. In addition to some of his punk/goth contemporaries, Smith pioneered a style of guitar playing that drives so many Cure songs, a type of short repeating chord cycle, which relentlessly drives the music forward, allowing the listener to get lost in the sound. Consider the aforementioned “A Forest,” one of the purest examples of the form.
Smith’s band is now composed of Simon Gallup (basses since 1979), Roger O’Donnell (keyboards on and off since 1987), Jason Cooper (drums since 1994), and relatively new guitarist Reeves Gabrels (since 2012). The rhythm section of Gallup and Cooper were a major part of what made the concert so exceptional. Cooper is able to execute the start-stop hiccups of so many Cure backbeats with precision and endurance. Gallup brings movement to the stage, pinning down deceptively complex bass leads that often drive the melodic force of these songs, ambling about, punk posturing, on fire.
After the second track “alt.end” from The Cure (2004) the band made this fan a happy man, as they dove into five consecutive tracks from Head On The Door, followed by “The Walk” from the 1983 EP of the same name (and from b-sides collection Japanese Whispers), one of the best tracks of the set. Incidentally this rare track, along with the unexpected rendition of “Kyoto” before it, were two of those songs that showed off drummer Cooper’s ability to execute complex polyrhythmic leads, while “Screw” showed off bassist Gallup’s chunk funky lines.
The Cure on this tour has been playing crowd-pleasing set lists that change each night, with a core of consistent selections from their most popular mid period work. The band played several tracks off Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), Disintegration (1989), which included career highlights “Lullaby,” “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You,” about which my daughter says “If you wanted to play one song to someone who did not know The Cure’s music, this would be it – so sad but beautiful.” Truer words. The other featured album was Wish (1992) from which the band pulled off a most unexpected pleasure, set closer “End.” This raw, psychedelic funeral march was absolutely overwhelming live, a perfect ending that summed up everything I came to love about The Cure. After verses like “I think I’ve reached that point where every wish has come true, and tired disguised oblivion is everything I do,” follows its poignant, desperately sad refrain:
Please stop loving me
Please stop loving me
I am none of these things
I watched the crowd, many of whom had clearly never heard this coda to Wish, slowly come around as the band cranked up its intensity, realizing they were witness to an immensely powerful moment, joining in the refrain, despite its despairing message. Smith’s uncanny way of putting words to music, making the sum of the two something more than its parts, awakening dread, a cry for help, and ultimately survival, even transcendence is unparalleled. And, fortunately for us, he is a survivor and, as seen last week in concert, he continues to thrive, in apparently good health and surprisingly strong voice. Long may this artist persevere. In the meantime, catch this tour if you can. You might just find a bit of healing yourself, a salve for the ills of this world, a new reason to love this enduring band.
oh, and my daughter Elaina on that night….