Wednesday, November 16, 2011
THE CURE, "Reflections", London Royal Albert Hall, 15th November 2011
Apropos of nothing in particular, but a vague sense of passing and an anniversary – The Cure come to one of the finest venues in the world to present a one-off of their first three albums, the relative b-sides, and a handful of other early singles. Well, when I say one-off, there's a total of seven shows in four cities, each of which with a capacity between 2,000 and 5,200. Tonight is the only European show, and the only time that many of these songs have been performed in public in Europe since 1982.
Yes, tickets are eye-wateringly expensive and significantly oversubscribed : from £25 to something like £150. The band aren't doing this for money (if they were, they'd be a lot more shows in lots bigger venues). But also, the band aren't doing this for free : I estimate the average price, and total ticket net for tonight being around £600,000. There's one European show for the whole 'tour'. Despite all things, there is an air of privilege and exclusivity, neither of which are really characteristics I've ever associated with art or The Cure .
Is this The Cure ? For tonights performance, the band front three seperate lineups – Robert Smith, longserving Simon Gallup (at 32 years in the band), and Jason Cooper (a relative newcomer at 17 years), for “Three Imaginary Boys”, as well as Roger O Donnell (25 years on keyboards), and – for “Faith” and later material, Lol Tolhurst on drums, percussion and keyboards. To an extent, The Cure is a revolving door ; members may go, but often they come back. Lol's return, however briefly, is perhaps most surprising. Two decades ago he was suing the band left, right, and centre. Tonight, he is back on stage with his schoolfriends. It is a recreation of an era that never really existed, but also, utterly, and unquestionably The Cure.
The first part of the set – starting at 7.48 and over a merely thirty six minutes later – is the whole of the 1979 debut “Three Imaginary Boys”, in order. Songs not played in thirty years or ever, such as “So What!”, “The Weedy Burton”, and so forth are played with a definitive precision that these songs feel as if they have been part of the band's set forever. Smith is, for the first time since 1982, the bands sole guitarist, but the sound is as dense as ever. The absence of the versatile Porl Thompson is not apparent. Certainly the performance has an element of restraint, in so much as the intense highpoints of the early records are tempered slightly with the knowledge that, a song such as “Play For Today” comes with two and a half hours left to go.
But who ever thought “So What!” or “Foxy Lady” would be performed again? Let alone sound so glorious. One thing that shines through all night is just how under-rated, and integral to the bands huge sound is Simon Gallup's bass. Huge chunks of low frequencies rumble through the hall that underpin the songs. Gallup prowls the stage with an enthusiasm that I've rarely seen, especially on the earlier, faster material. As “Three Imaginary Boys” powers through, I'm reminded of Robert Smith saying that it was so long since he wrote those songs, and the band has changed so much, that they are practically cover versions.
A ten minute intermission, whilst the keyboards are established, ushers in the second part – a complete recreation of “Seventeen Seconds”. The rarely played songs, such as “M”, “The Final Sound”, “Reflections”, “Seventeen Seconds” may not necessarily be the first choice of a representative Cure setlist, but here, they fit. The room sways and voices as one the wordless chorus to “Play For Today”, and then shakes for a thunderous, but truncated, “A Forest”. Often, Cure concerts are celebrations, of audiences on their feet for three hours, in the aisles. Here, it's more reflective ; the majority of the evening each of us, myself included, are lost in a inner world soundtracked by these songs. Some bands I would insist on standing for : The Cure are one of the few I would consider sitting and soaking the music passively all night long.
Where tonight differs from other nights, is that the band perform the albums. The live interpretations over the years – the headfirst, extended jams of “A Forest”, the ramped up, faster “Charlotte Sometimes”, the layered and extrapolated concert version of “Faith” - are absent. These are the band covering their own songs and performing the studio versions, warts and all, live. Therefore, the versions are shorter than almost every live version I've heard in a long time.
Visually it is sparse. The projections and space is dispensed with in favour of a true-to-the-era approach of lights and smoke. Most of the night Gallup looks like a bass welding god arising out of purple clouds. The sound is precise and clear. Smiths vocals lack the insane intensity that comes from the end of a tour. Some nights the motifs in songs such as “A Forest” are pushed and pushed to Smith's vocal limits. Here, he holds back. It might be his voice is changing over the years.
The other thing that very much stands out on the early material is just how integral, and under-rated, the bass is. The keyboards add colour and texture. Roger O'Donnell's presence completes the band. It adds the final piece to the puzzle. Adept at almost any keyboard part you can imagine, he conjures a bank of long lost sounds that makes this an authentic Cure and not, as some might think, some kind of ongoing habit.
I agree with Robert. Jason is the best drummer The Cure have ever had. Over the course of 195 minutes and 44 songs, every note is precise. But more than that, it feels right. When the band return for their third set, 1981's “Faith” in full, songs I never thought I'd ever see, holy grails of Cureology, breathe before my eyes. “Other Voices”. Or the unique “All Cats Are Grey”. Often imitated, never bettered, rarely heard. And, for the third time in the history of the world, “Doubt”.
I count 27 cameras in the standing section alone during “All Cats Are Grey”.
The band bring the main set to a close at 9.58pm – over two hours after taking the stage – with “Faith”. “Faith” at the Albert Hall. The last time that happened was over a quarter of a century ago. This is why I love music. It unlocks in me the emotions that are often too hard, too raw, to process any other way. The venue itself, the huge, delicate Victorian classical hall, takes on an atmosphere. Not reverent, but intense. The whole room seems lost, for a moment, in emotion and reflection. Where I sit, up in row W of the fourth tier, I'm too engaged : taken to a place only I can reach.
Someone has thrown sand in my eyes, for my cheeks are damp. Dammit. Why?
1st encore is a compilation of singles and b-sides from the first album. The trio of Robert, Simon and Jason power through “World War” (it was rubbish then, and is now), “I'm Cold”, and the underwhelming “Plastic Passion”. And then, its a big pop thrill as “Boy's Don't Cry” and “Killing An Arab” squeal and roar and bring the whole room to its feet. Breaking with tradition, and ending first encore perhaps on a slight diversion, “Jumping Someone Else's Train”/”Another Journey By Train” meld into each other, before a second encore.
“Descent”. A song more deserving of relegation to b-side status the world has not seen. Certainly, it would have been easy and quick to whip out all the hits you don't get tonight, but there is something wonderfully perverse and obstinate in playing an instrumental thirty year old b-side. Aside from the fact that most of the room, even those who have flown across the world to see the band, appear bored. Encore two also sees “Splintered In Her Head”, the practically-extinct “Charlotte Sometimes”, and ending on the dense howl of “Hanging Garden.”
At 10.39, the band then return for their third, and final encore, that brings the chronological journey through their first five years to a close. The final three (somewhat strangely pooh-poohed by the person next to us as 'too happy'), are “Let's Go To Bed”, “The Walk” and “Lovecats”. The brief pop thrill that The Cure became is visible again, and the fans that grew up on these songs and became bank managers and housewives rise as one and dance a little bit. Smith smiles and laugh and promises, “See you on the next tour.” Three hours and ten minutes since they started, forty five songs later, and The Cure disappear. Time, whether we know it or not, is running out, the end is nearer than the beginning. Not that this necessarily matters. This, here and now, living through history.
Even to the regular Cure fan (I've seen them countless times over the past twenty years, from Holland to Manchester), tonight was a moment of rare beauty. Over half the songs performed tonight were ones that I've not experienced before. Old songs, old friends. Worth staying up late for.
An hour earlier, The Cure performed “Faith” at the Albert Hall. And I knew, same as I did half my age and twenty years ago, that moments like that, like this, like right now as I listen to it, that music isn't some fad, some passing fancy. This is for life, and a life in itself.
Or perhaps, to summarise, um, wow.
"Three Imaginary Boys" - 1st set: 10:15 Saturday Night, Accuracy, Grinding Halt, Another Day, Object, Subway Song, Foxy Lady, Meathook, So What, Fire in Cairo, It's Not You, Three Imaginary Boys, Weedy Burton.
"Seventeen Seconds" - 2nd set (with Roger O'Donnell): A Reflection, Play For Today, Secrets, In Your House, Three, The Final Sound, A Forest, M, At Night, Seventeen Seconds.
"Faith" - 3rd set (With Roger and Lol Tolhurst): The Holy Hour, Primary, Other Voices, All Cats Are Grey, The Funeral Party, Doubt, The Drowning Man, Faith.
1st encore: World War, I'm Cold, Plastic Passion, Boys Don't Cry, Killing An Arab, Jumping Someone Else's Train, Another Journey By Train.
2nd encore: Descent, Splintered in Her Head, Charlotte Sometimes, The Hanging Garden.
3rd encore: Let's Go to Bed, The Walk, The Lovecats.