Australia is usually known for its glorious climate--Bondi Beach sunbathers, shrimps on the barbie, frolicking dolphins, and all that--but the Cure brought the gloomy English weather with them when they journeyed south of the equator to play the Vivid Festival at the Sydney Opera House on May 31/June 1. (So much for a sunny Aussie holiday for me, huh?) Okay, so it wasn't entirely the Cure's fault that Sydney was struck by a torrential rainstorm this particular week; it is winter Down Under right now, after all. But considering that the Cure were at Vivid (Sydney's two-week carnival of light displays, outdoor art installations, and music) to perform their first three doomy albums--Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, and Faith--the depressingly gray weather was most fitting. Who wants to hear dirges like "Funeral Party," "Drowning Man," and "A Forest" when it's sunny and cheery outside, anyway?
Yes, as Cure diehards descended upon Sydney's Circular Quay harbor, mingling among the rosy-cheeked jogging locals and khaki-pants'd touristy types on the way to this monumental concert, their black raincoats and water-resistant PVC were incredibly appropriate. And these fans and their trenchcoats had traveled from all corners of both hemispheres (I in fact flew 14 hours from Los Angeles, on a plane that left LAX at 10:16 on a Saturday night and was therefore just one minute away from being a Cure cliché). And some of them even forked out as much as $2,000 on eBay for tickets to this "Reflections" show, which is probably double what their round-trip airfares actually cost.
Few bands more than 30 years into their career could still inspire such passion, or such wanton disposal of income--especially a band that's endured so many personnel changes (seriously more than the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Destiny's Child, and Menudo combined). But the Cure's ever-revolving and -evolving lineup has always served as a vehicle for the prolific genius of Sir Robert Smith, as I like to call him, one of music's most unlikely yet enduring rock stars. Robert once earned the undying loyalty of an entire '80s generation of black-lipsticked, velvet-caped, lunchpail-toting, Prozac-popping teen rejects, who found bittersweet salvation in his anguished wail and cryptic elegies of isolation and despair. Now those teens are all grown up, and within the hallowed hall of the legendary Sydney Opera House this week, they took shelter from Sydney's rain and cold as they watched Robert and his band of not-so-merry men recreate three of the Cure's most iconic and important albums. The fact the audience also consisted of a fair number of modern-day teenagers--kids who weren't even born when Wish was released--was yet another testament to the Cure's enduring legacy.
The show began with Robert, still as spidery-haired and smeary-lipsticked and puffy-sneakered as ever at age 51, announcing, "Let's go back 33 years!" as fans shrieked, Banshee-like (pun intended), loud enough to be heard on the other side of the harbor. Forming a trio with longtime bassist Simon Gallup and regular drummer Jason Cooper, Robert worked his way through the Cure's 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys, playing songs he probably had to learn all over again (did fans ever think they'd get to hear Robert sing that cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady," which ex-member Michael Dempsey originally warbled on the album, or oldie obscurities like "Meat Hook" or "It's Not You," or "Subway Song" complete with a Robert harmonica solo?)
"Let's see if I remember this one," Robert tossed off before attempting "So What" (he did), and after "Object" he quipped, "I never really liked that one" (I did). And all throughout, the lean and minimal trio format highlighted Robert's guitar playing, reminding everyone just how underrated and distinctive an axeman he truly is.
Finishing up with Three Imaginary Boys' title track, Robert said, "In the old days, that was it!" But there was much, much more to come--two albums' worth, albeit very different albums. Back in the day, the Cure's stylistic leap from the spartan post-punk of Three Imaginary Boys to the magnificently morose mopery of the Seventeen Seconds/Faith double-doom wallop was one of the biggest quick-changes in pop history, and this fact was only emphasized by hearing all three of these albums played consecutively, with only a five-minute intermission in between.
Returning with on/off keyboardist Roger O'Donnell for the Seventeen Seconds portion of the evening, the Cure quartet took on a lusher sound, and now it was Simon's time to shine, as his snaky basslines on tracks like "Play For Today" and "M"--not to mention his trademark low-slung stance, crouching-panther stage-prowling, and archery-style arm-slashing across his bass strings--became the show's focal point. But of course it was the epic "A Forest" (the "Kashmir" of goth-rock, and often a song the Cure save for their encore) that elicited the most mouth-foamed audience reaction, as fans earnestly clapped in time to the song's bowel-rumbling duh-dum, duh-dum coda.
Finally it was time for 1981's Faith, the "gateway album" that arguably set the blueprint for the band's Head On The Door/Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me/Disintegration late-'80s commercial peak (and the signature sound they've stuck with ever since then). Expanding to a quintet with the addition of once-ousted original member Laurence Tolhurst (who was actually replaced by Roger O'Donnell in 1987 after an acrimonious departure--awkward!) on keys and percussion, the Cure received the most enthusiastic ovation for this third set. The propulsively catchy "Primary" (augmented by seizure-inducing strobelights), the majestically Disintegration-worthy "Funeral Party," the haunting "Other Voices"--all of it was amazing, and all of it only made fans wish the show didn't have to end.
Well, guess what? It didn't. Proving that they're basically the Bruce Springsteen of goth, the Cure returned, again and again and again, to churn out a marathon three-part encore that was long enough to encompass an entire fourth album's worth of bonus material. Perhaps most jaw-droppingly and practically PVC-pants-wettingly, the band played a surprising selection of B-sides ("Another Journey By Train," which was the flipside to "A Forest"; the "Jumping Someone Else's Train" B-side "I'm Cold"; the "Charlotte Sometimes" B-Side "Splintered In Her Head"; and "Descent," which was the flipside to "Primary"). But they also cranked out a bunch of cuts from the U.S. reissue of Three Imaginary Boys as Boys Don't Cry ("World War," "Plastic Passion," "Killing An Arab," "Jumping Someone Else's Train," "Boys Don't Cry"), as well as some choice hits that ventured into post-Faith, Pornography/Japanese Whispers territory ("Charlotte Sometimes," "The Hanging Garden," "Let's Go To Bed," "The Walk"). Fans were dancing, and almost openly weeping, in the aisles at this point.
The whole concert lasted three and a half hours, but of course, fans (myself included) wouldn't have minded if the Cure had flagrantly disobeyed the Opera House curfew and played all of The Top, The Head On The Door, both discs from Kiss Me, and so on. But still, a show like this was once in a lifetime (or twice in a lifetime, since some real fanatics are going both nights), and everyone left the Opera House satisfied.
So, was it worth my vacation time? Was it worth braving the elements when I could have just holidayed in mild Hawaii instead? Basically, was it worth 14 hours of flight time for Seventeen Seconds? Yes, yes, and yes. I will have vivid memories of the Cure at Vivid for the next three decades to come, and I imagine the other 2,499 flucky fans who were at this show would say the same. So damn worth it.
Below is the Cure's full, 44-song Vivid "Reflections" setlist. Yes, this actually happened:
Three Imaginary Boys
"10:15 Saturday Night"
"Fire In Cairo"
"It's Not You"
"Three Imaginary Boys"
"Play For Today"
"In Your House"
"The Final Sound"
"The Holy Hour"
"All Cats Are Grey"
"The Funeral Party"
"The Drowning Man"
"Boys 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"
[top photo courtesy of Sydney Opera House]