Last night The Cult played SXSW and performed for free. Since I live in Austin, I kinda felt like they did it just for me. I am, for the record one of the biggest Cult fans out there. Now I don’t think I’m a fanatic…I don’t travel city to city and own every bootleg or 12 inch single, but I do have all their albums, a pricey box set and even scored a Cult beer can that was from the “Love Removal Machine” video.
I’ve seen the band 10 times now, and they always deliver. Some bands have off nights, and I’m sure they’re not immune, but luckily they’ve batted 1000 with me thus far.
I started thinking about why I like this band so damn much. They really were the first band that went beyond some songs I liked to hear and became a game changer in my musical tastes and identity. Years ago, vocalist Ian Astbury said “We never had fans-we have addicts”. And that’s pretty much it. When you meet someone really into the Cult, you pretty much know you’ve got a friend for life, or at least someone who won’t annoy you while you watch the show. Perhaps it’s the fact that the band has always been left-of-center which made them stand out in the 80’s amongst all the glam metal that was becoming a parody of itself. They just have a different element, which only could’ve existed with coming out of the post-punk scene in England. Not many bands appeal to Punks, Goths, Metal heads & Classic Rock Enthusiasts, but the Cult own that distinction.
And no one sounds quite like Ian. Truly blessed with one of the most powerful set of pipes, his sound so distinctive, you hear one note, and you know it’s him. In the other corner you have guitarist Billy Duffy. Where Ian is mysterious, esoteric and speaks in riddles, Billy is no bullshit meat and potatoes rock. He likes the rock and roll lifestyle with no apologies, and lets Ian handle the loftier issues. But his way with a riff is classic. Always catchy. Simplistic yet fluid. A little post punk Edge echoey guitar here, some ham fisted Angus Young there. It’s quirky but it works.
There’s just something about the band that makes you feel alive. No band sounds better blazing in your car stereo as you haul ass down the highway. They have a strong returning theme of man moving away from nature and the toll that takes on us as a culture. That gives them a semi mystical, shamanistic quality that the Doors had, which makes sense given Ian’s obsession with the band, and with Native American culture.
I also have a thing for the underdog, and The Cult were a band made for and by underdogs.. They got no end of shit back in the day. Too fashion oriented and poetic to win over metal heads in wide margins, and too unselfconscious and over the top for hipsters to feel comfortable listening too. They were the one of the 1st bands to bring heavy guitar to alternative rock in a demonstrative way. Jane’s Addiction followed in their footsteps and acknowledged their influence.
Then Grunge & Alternative rock hit the mainstream. The fact that the band imploded at the moment alternative heavy guitar rock hit its zenith is a crying shame. Members of the Pumpkins, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, have acknowledged their debt to the Cult, but it was lost on the general public. They released Ceremony, by far their weakest record and glossed over with a hair metal sheen that was immediately out of date on arrival. It didn’t sound like the Cult I remembered. It sounded like an attempt to recreate Sonic Temple to diminishing returns. Fatal error.
Around that same time, they teamed with Electric producer Rick Rubin again for “The Witch” which was used on the Cool World soundtrack. It was raw, industrial and techno tinged and went over well. If the whole album had been in that vein they might’ve avoided falling off the map. When they finally did their 1994 self titled album which was extremely ragged, confessional and seemed right for the times, it was too little too late. People had forgotten and moved on.
And to make matters worse, Perry Farrell borrowed Ian’s idea of an Alternative Music Festival (1989’s The Gathering of the Tribes) when he came up with Lollapalooza. Ian lost money on his festival and Farrell became a millionaire many times over. Ouch. And let’s not forget they took Guns’N’Roses out as their opening act for their Electric tour and by the time the tour was over their opener was outselling them hand over foot. But something about them always being the bridesmaid and not the bride really endears them to their fans.
When I see them hit the stage at Austin, they still sound like they have something to prove. It is live that they’re in their element. Albums vary from great to good to lackluster, but on stage they reign supreme. I’ve never seen them phone it in. No need for stagey production. They rock, plain and simple.
I liked much of the new material. Their 1st single Lucifer (which you can download for free through their site ) didn’t hit me initially but it’s growing on me, and their other new songs went down even better live. There seems to be a raw MC5/Stooges vibe to some of their new stuff. “Honey Like A Knife” and “For The Animals” have a great intensity, and “The Wolf” is like a beefier “She Sells Sanctuary”.
When they did play “Lucifer” it had a surprise performance on bongos by no other than Matthew McConaughey. Remembering the actor’s infamous arrest from playing bongos in the nude, it was a quirky out-of-the-blue moment that brought chuckles and good will. He also came out later to play on their 1st single “Spiritwalker” check out a clip of it here).
Off that same album, they did “Horse Nation” , a song Ive always loved but never have heard live before. The tribal beat killed and even people who weren’t familiar with the tune were getting off on it.
Having seen them many times over, I must say Ian’s vocals sounded powerful and rich. At times in the past he’s occasionally sounded hoarse and winded, but not tonight.
And no one has quite the unique gift for gab in the stage banter department as Ian. He gave a shout out to Willie Nelson. “ Why is Willie always getting busted in Texas? Po-po gotta know Willie”! He then berated the audience for not showing as much energy as he felt he was putting in the performance; “I have more energy in my near 50 year old ass then all of you’ve out there!”
He won’t settle for anything but full surrender to the rock.
Guitarist Billy Duffy was also in fine form, wailing away on his melodic solos and bashing out huge power chords. John Tempesta, former drummer for White Zombie, Testament & Helmet, laid down a solid, dynamic groove. In a band that has seen more drummer changes than Spinal Tap, it’s nice to see him still in the band 6 years later.
The band ended with their standard classics “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Love Removal Machine”. They both delivered, although “Sanctuary” will always reign supreme for myself. It’s still one of the most perfect, blissful rock songs of the 80’s. The swirling, hypnotic sitar-ish riff never fails to get some of the biggest cheers of the night and get the crowd moving. It remains a thing of beauty.
There’s been much press made lately that the Cult are gunning for the big time again with this new album. But the reality is that guys in their late 40’s aren’t going to set the world on fire in a major way again. That’s a young man’s game. But they don’t need to make a comeback in the eyes of their diehard fans, because they never went away. They never have to worry about playing to an empty house, even if it’s an amphitheater instead of a stadium.
In the end, the Cult delivered a great set that provided the comfort food of their classic hits to their core fan base, engaged them with solid new songs, and with any luck, caught the attention of folks unfamiliar with their work and made some new future Cult-addicts in the process.
I went with several friends who’ve never seen them live before and I can attest to this when I saw their reaction to the show. They were Cult junkies now, and ready for their next fix.
I look forward to concert # 11 and picking up their new release in May.
THE CULT SET LIST:
Honey From A Knife
For the Animals
She Sells Sanctuary
Love Removal Machine