The Cure may be the best live band to come out of the 1980s “New Wave” genre. The band has toured in one form or another consistently for more than three decades. Their marathon concerts are legendary, and it is not uncommon for a Cure concert to include a 15-minute or longer improvisation of a single song from their catalog of jam-ready classics like “A Forest.” In fact, it’s not unusual for the band to play until they are literally kicked off the stage.
At their last appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl, several years ago, the band began bright and early at 6 p.m., fully aware of the Bowl’s 10 p.m. curfew. It seemed like four hours, minus a 30-minute intermission, would be adequate time for even this marathon jam band. But as the band returned for a third encore, two minutes before the dreaded curfew, the group launched into “A Forest,” intent on jamming to the end.
The sound was cut about four minutes after 10 p.m., leaving lead singer Robert Smith grinning with an “oh well” look on his face. The band had a similar experience during their last appearance at the Coachella music festival in the Southern California desert. Their 2008 Sunday night closing headline set went on for nearly four hours before the power was cut, well after the midnight curfew at that festival.
The Cure returned to Southern California on Thanksgiving week for a very special three-night concert at the opulent Pantages Theater. In a strange Hollywood coincidence, another ‘80s icon, Morrissey, happened to be playing just across the street at the Music Box on one of these nights.
The shows, which were the last of a very limited schedule that included stops in Los Angeles and New York, came after earlier performances at the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall in London. The Reflections tour featured a retro lineup of band members, playing their first three albums in their entirety, followed by a set of B sides and hit singles of the same era. The concert was a departure in both form and substance, from the touring jam band version of The Cure that has played live shows relentlessly over the past few decades.
Led by mercurial lead singer and guitar player Smith, the only member to have always been in the band, this lineup consisted of some of the most veteran members of the group. Lead guitar Porl Thompson, who has helped lead the band into a whole new dimension of improvisation during the last decade and was also in the original lineup of the band, was not part of the Reflections tour. Instead, the band began as a trio to perform their first album, 1979’s Imaginary Boys.
Smith led the trio, with bassist Simon Gallup, who has played with the band on and off since 1979, and the relatively new boy in the band, drummer Jason Cooper, who has been playing with The Cure for a mere 16 years. The masterful Smith led the trio through the first album in uncharacteristic lockstep with little manipulation. The short songs quickly bled into a canvas of simplistic sound, painting a picture of the roots of The Cure’s music.
After a brief break, the band returned joined by keyboardist Roger O’Donnell, who has played with the band on and off for almost 25 years. A stalwart of 1980s synth bands, he played with the Thompson Twins, Berlin and The Psychedelic Furs before joining The Cure.
The now four-piece group launched into the band’s second album, 1980’s Seventeen Seconds. Aided by O’Donnell’s keyboards, Smith led the group through a much deeper and darker sounding set. Listening to them play, it was extraordinary to hear the evolution of their sound from the simplistic first album to the much more complex tracks on the second. The darker tone of Seventeen Seconds helped create the image of the sultry brooding band that became the trademark of The Cure. The classic that would become a staple jam in many of the bands performances, “A Forest,” was played in its original compact form from the album.
After another short intermission, the four members returned augmented by a fifth musician, Lol Tolhurst, the original drummer and later keyboardist of The Cure who had not played in the band in 22 years. The five musicians launched into The Cure’s third album, 1981’s Faith, and played it brilliantly in its entirety.
The album, which included two songs, “All Cats Are Grey” and “The Drowning Man,” inspired by fantasy writer Mervyn Peake in his Gormenghast novels, probably contributed most to the Goth label that the band received from the media at the time. But the band, led by Smith brooding lyrics, possibly had more in common with black American blues artists lamenting in the 1940s and ‘50s with equally brooding lyrics and rhythms. At the end of the set, Smith joked that the band was done, before confessing that they would be back for more.
After another very short intermission, the quintet returned to play B sides and singles of the era that have been rarely performed in the past few decades. For the most hard-core Cure fans, including the man next to me who had flown in from San Francisco for the show, and the woman in front of me from Phoenix, the main reason they had come was for this chance to hear some rarely played gems in the band’s catalog. They were not disappointed.
By the time the band finished the three encores that followed the three album sets, they had torn threw 45 songs in just over three hours. Among the gems included in the encore were “Boys Don’t Cry,” and a lighthearted version of “Let’s Go Into Bed,” for which Smith would sing in gibberish for the chorus while the crowd belted out the lyrics.
Other inspired moments came with the playing of “Killing an Arab,” which seemed just as relevant today as when it was the media focus of misunderstood controversy three decades ago. Other classic B sides included “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and “The Hanging Garden” (another catalyst for endless improvisational jams by the band over the decades). A jovial Smith ended the evening’s festivities with a silly sardonic version of “The Lovecats,” striking his trademark pose, with outstretched hands and tilted head, looking a bit like a giant teddy bear on a cross.
While The Cure may be an icon of the 1980s, their music and concerts continue to be just as relevant today, mostly because of their relentless perseverance as one of the hardest-working live bands to ever play pop music.
10:15 Saturday Night
Fire in Cairo
It’s Not You
Three Imaginary Boy
The Weedy Burton
Play for Today
In Your House
The Final Sound
The Holy Hour
All Cats Are Grey
The Funeral Party
The Drowning Man
Boy’s Don’t Cry
Killing an Arab
Jumping Someone Else’s Train
Another Journey By Train
Splintered in Her Head
The Hanging Garden
Let’s Go to Bed
— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.