Thirty-one years is a very long time between life events.
Bush the first was still president, and Bill Clinton was knocking on the White House door.
Los Angeles was rioting (having grown up there, I found this both sad and inevitable—LAPD’s reputation for brutality was well-known by then).
A guy named Jay Leno had just taken over The Tonight Show from the legendary Johnny Carson.
And the Cure—straight outta Crawley, Sussex—was touring behind Wish, its ninth(!!) studio album, which saw the band transforming from beloved ‘80s cult artists into unlikely global superstars, an LP that went number one in the U.K., number two in the U.S. and generated the international hits “High” and “Friday I’m In Love.” The album had even been nominated for a Grammy, such was the complete embrace extended to a group of reluctant characters who were likely as flummoxed to find themselves in this exalted position as their black-clad fans were to see them there.
I was at the 1992 Wish tour’s northwest stop in Seattle—the rundown, crummy old Seattle Center Coliseum (now the bright, shiny, Jeff Bezos-funded Climate Pledge Arena) serving as the cement box du jour—which opened appropriately enough with “High” and went on for more than two hours and two lengthy encores before concluding with “A Forest,” the band’s calling card for greatness and a song routinely voted by Cure fans as its best, which still has a place in the group’s setlists even now, including tonight.
So it was with much lipstick-smeared nostalgia (not mine—Robert Smith’s, plus a good number of the punters in attendance, too) that we showed up at NorCal Grateful Dead hangout Shoreline Amphitheatre (so known because late Bay Area music impresario Bill Graham designed the space to resemble the Dead’s “steal your face” skull logo) for the “San Francisco” stop on the Cure’s Songs Of A Lost World (new album alert, y’all) 2023 World Tour.
In the three-plus decades that had passed between my live Cure sightings, barely a thing had changed in terms of quality. Robert Smith essentially is the Cure, and his band essentially is the same nimble backing instrument that has enabled Smith’s varied, melodic creations to remain as relevant now as they were back when MTV was still finding its footing as the platform of a generation all those years ago, when technicolor videos such as “The Walk” surprised and delighted just as surely as the song did this evening in a live setting.
Given Smith’s central role in shaping the Cure and its music, it’s worth remembering that the band’s present lineup has been together since 2012, with some members going back decades. (Bassist Simon Gallup, perhaps one of alternative-rock’s finest ever, has been with Smith more or less from the beginning in the late ‘70s; keyboardist Roger O’Donnell and multi-instrumentalist Perry Bamonte have been off and on Cure mates since ‘89 and ‘91, respectively; and even “newbie” Reeves Gabrels—yes, he of David Bowie’s Tin Machine and a million other highwire collaborations—has been a made Cure man for more than 10 years.) It makes a tremendous difference to the Cure live experience; Smith is able to stretch out, focus on his (still amazingly and distinctively nimble) singing and occasional bouts of fun such as picking up a star-emblazoned acoustic guitar to playfully and extemporaneously kick off a pop classic such as “Friday I’m In Love” rather than stare at his feet, focused on which pedal to kick at which moment and to what effect. The band functions as something of an extension of Smith himself, which tonight meant that through a 17-song main set and two lengthy encores (which only ended when the group synched its final tune of the night—classic early post-punk hit “Boys Don’t Cry”—with the city’s 11 p.m. curfew), Smith and the Cure were able to take a leisurely, discursive stroll through an incredible back catalog of both hits and deep cuts, even debuting two new compositions (“A Fragile Thing” and the stately “And Nothing Is Forever”) as they zigged and zagged through a seemingly endless treasure chest of tunes.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Cure is that, even after 45 years, this is a band that refuses to phone it in. The group could literally just play dirges and funeral songs and still rake in cash by the truckload, but played for nearly three hours, digging up old fan favorites such as Disintegration’s “Closedown” (tonight witnessed its tour debut), “Three Imaginary Boys,” “Primary,” Seventeen Seconds deep track “Play For Today,” Pornography’s entirely remade “Charlotte Sometimes” and its relentlessly pounding “One Hundred Years” while also devoting an entire second encore to the hits, so plentiful and recognizably excellent they fell from the stage like rain (“In Between Days,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Friday I’m In Love,” “Lullaby,” “Close To Me,” the list goes seemingly on and on).
Amid all of this, the thing that occurred to me over and over again throughout the evening is just how musical the Cure is. The band’s longtime drummer, Jason Cooper, splits the difference between Burundi tribal beats and occasional bouts of Bo Diddley-like pounding, creating a polyrhythmic soup that gave songs such as the vaguely southeast-Asian “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” a distinctly twilight color and tone. Then there’s whatever you might make of the varied and surprising six-string stylings of Gabrels, who added solos to old favorites (“At The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea,” “Three Imaginary Boys”) that lifted the songs into the ether, creating dreamy, noisy textures that Smith himself would’ve struggled to achieve on his own (but has no doubt ratified as Gabrels’ abstract creativity has gelled with Smith’s songwriting over the years). Smith himself seemed to be loose, upbeat and enjoying himself immensely throughout the evening, at one point calling the affair “such good fun” before launching into a tongue-in-cheek version of “Lullaby,” complete with creepy spider images projected live behind the band, in perfect synchronicity with the song’s drug-inspired allegories of Smith’s past.
Triumphant—and the perfect bookend to a 31-year journey between shows, not to mention, the ideal framing for A Night Like This.