"Everything is as it should be."

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The Cult - The Greek Theatre: A Review

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THE CULT - THE GREEK THEATRE LOS ANGELES - JUNE 15, 2019

Last Saturday night, June 15th, I continued my year of living musically when I went to see The Cult at the Greek Theatre here in Los Angeles. The Cult, a British band currently comprised of Ian Astbury (lead vocals), Billy Duffy (lead guitar), John Tempesta (drums), Damon Fox (bass) and Grant Fitzpatrick (keyboards), are playing shows to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their seminal 1989 album Sonic Temple, the most commercially successful record of their career.

I’ve been a Cult fan since 1985, which was when I first heard their breakthrough hit She Sells Sanctuary off of the Love (1985) album. That song, with its signature 12 string guitar riff, is the band’s most iconic hit and is one of the great rock songs of the 80’s.

The Cult have always been a bit of a strange band, an amalgam of different genres and types splattered together to make a whole that is not so easily definable. Their first album, Dreamtime, was a psuedo-psychedelic take on the alternative Manchester sound popular at the time. There second album, Love, was still in the alternative Manchester neighborhood but with a decidedly heavier sound. Their third album, Electric, which is my favorite album of theirs, is a balls to the wall, unapologetically raunchy and muscular hard rock blues album. Which brings us to Sonic Temple, the band’s fourth studio album.

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Sonic Temple was the band’s biggest hit and definitely catapulted them into the upper echelons of radio air play. The album is a high octane concoction of fan friendly hard rock and is much more refined and musically “clean” than Electric, which is maybe why I comparatively don’t like it as much as its predecessor. Sonic Temple boasted four top-notch singles, Fire Woman, Edie (Ciao Baby), Sun King and Sweet Soul Sister, that dominated rock radio airplay in 1989 and 1990. After Sonic Temple the band, like many other hard rock bands from the 80’s, found itself overwhelmed by the cultural tsunami that was grunge and never recovered its commercial and artistic footing or relevance.

The Cult’s early career musical eclecticism made them difficult to define, but so did their inability to come up with a signature “look”. As much as we’d like to think that success is based on purely the music, the truth is that having a distinct style is just as important, especially back when MTV was in its heyday. The Cult were never able to make a music video that captured the imagination, and that hurt them in so far as it came to making the leap from rock stardom to rock superstardom. The Cult were always much more popular in Europe and the U.K. than they were in America, and I think that the lack of a standout video is a big reason why.

Another issue that may have held the band back was that its lead singer, Ian Astbury, who had all the prerequisites for rock stardom, a great voice, charisma and solid song writing, but never put together a coherent and discernible visual style that set him apart. In the Love years he looked like a Steven Tyler wannabe with bandanas hanging from his mic stand. In the following years he embraced a sort of Jim Morrison-esque manner and writing style but never found his footing as a true original…at least in terms of how he looked.

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The band have put out 6 studio albums in the 30 years since Sonic Temple, and while some of them have been pretty good (1991’s Ceremony is excellent), they have never recaptured their pre-grunge swagger. Like many older bands, The Cult are now cashing on as a nostalgia act, touring on albums they made a quarter century or more earlier. In 2009 they went on the road and played the entirety of the Love album on the Love Live Tour. And in 2015 I caught them as they toured playing entirety of the Electric album. The reality is that this is how these guys have to make a living now a days, and while they won’t sell out stadiums anytime soon, they can certainly pack mid-size venues like The Greek Theatre.

I have never been to The Greek before, so I was excited to see the venue. I was surprised how easy it was to get there, and since I bought parking ahead of time, the logistics of getting to and from the place were made simple…always a big plus in Los Angeles.

The Greek is a gorgeous open air venue that makes the most of its Griffith Park setting. There is nothing quite so gorgeous as watching the sun set and the moon rise in a pristine outdoor space. The Greek is also very well run and maintained as it is impeccably clean, has expansive bathrooms, and offers a pricey but decent array of food and beverage choices.

Having not been there before, me and my companion, the irrepressible Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf, arrived early to the festivities. The show was schedules to “start” at 6:30, but had been moved up to 6 for some reason, and much to our shock we got there right after 6.

There were three opening acts, Vowws, Zola Jesus and Prayers. Vowws went on first and were a goth male/female duo. I knew nothing about them, and while they weren’t terrible, I do not feel compelled to learn more about them. They were good musicians and singers, but they lack any charisma or stage presence, and they weren’t aided by the fact that their moody music should be listened to in a dark room and not under the glare of an unforgiving sun. That said, the guitarist guy sounded like Depeche Mode when he sang and the female singer had a Siouxsie-esque voice. Bottom line is this...they were tolerable.

The second act up was Zola Jesus, of whom I had not heard. Zola Jesus is a female singer, and she was accompanied by a guitarist and a violinist. Zola Jesus walked onto the stage wearing a bizarre, body length gauze that obscured the audiences view of her. She looked like a cross between the bride of Frankenstein and a very poorly made Mummy. That said, she had a gorgeous voice and a confident and intriguing stage presence. I really enjoyed her performance and the fact that she incarnates this sort of stage entity that accentuates her really strong and lush voice.

The third and final warm up act was Prayers. Let me put this as succinctly as I can... Prayers is the worst band I have ever seen in my entire life. The band consists of one guy playing his computer, another guy odiously screeching out the lamest of lyrics, and a third guy who doesn’t wear a shirt and just stands there not moving at all. The band’s music is best described as cholo goth rap…and no that is not a typo. Prayers’ music was excruciatingly awful and their performance went on and on and on. Enduring this band’s set was like surviving both the Bataan Death March AND the Trail of Tears. At one point the lead singer, and I am using the term singer very loosely as his voice is aggressively repulsive, took out a knife from his pocket and was displaying it menacingly in some poseur-Satanic way and I began praying to the gods that he would either slit his own throat or throw the knife to me so I could slit mine…anything to end this musical holocaust. Finally, after what felt like hours, the root canal known as Prayers left and we were left with nothing but a beautiful night and the featured act.

The Cult did not go on until after 9, which was a bit frustrating as we’d been sitting there since 6. But when they did go on they hit the ground running. They opened with a rip roaring rendition of Sun King and the audience, that seemed pretty tired from the endless warm up acts, greeted them with boisterous cheers.

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When I have seen The Cult in the past, Ian Astbury has always come across as an inconsistent, erratic and irritable stage presence. When I saw them in 2015 he admonished the crowd for not cheering loud enough while he gave what was a decidedly lackluster performance. While Astbury should have always been the center of attention at a Cult show, his uneven performances left him fading into the background. On the other hand, guitarist Billy Duffy, who is the picture of consistency and energy, never let me down. Of The Cult shows I have seen in the past, they always turned into Billy Duffy shows, with Duffy’s astonishing guitar prowess and showmanship taking center stage eclipsing Astbury and his uninspired effort and sullen demeanor.

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I don’t know what it was at The Greek the other night, maybe it was the fact that the band had never played there before, but Astbury gave the best show that I have ever seen from him that night. Astbury was in jovial spirits, was engaging and energetic, even vivaciously dancing and prancing around the stage. This show was not a Billy Duffy Cult show, this show was, from start to finish, and without question, an Ian Astbury Cult show…and that was pretty cool to catch. Astbury even looked great, as he sported a new shorter hairstyle and a cool outfit and lean and trim as if he had lost a bit of weight.

While Astbury’s voice is weakened and cannot hit the higher notes of his youth, he seems to have come to grips with this limitation and lets the audience fill in the gaps where he can no longer tread. For instance, on the hit Sweet Soul Sister, Astbury no longer even tries to hit those difficult and athletic notes of the chorus, instead he lets the crowd carry the day, and it works well in building rapport with the audience…or at least it works better than admonishing them for not cheering loud enough.

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While Astbury took and held center stage, Billy Duffy was his usual steady brilliant self. Duffy’s playing hasn’t slipped a bit since the glory days of thirty years ago. Duffy is also a premier showman as he masterfully works the crowd as well as his Gretsch White Falcon. Duffy is one of the most underrated and overlooked guitar players of his time, but anyone who sees him live will attest that his playing is exquisite.

The Cult roared through their set, which included raucous renditions of Sweet Soul Sister, American Horse, Fire Woman and a glorious back to back combo of American Gothic and Spiritwalker. The crescendo was the final song of the regular set which was She Sells Sanctuary. While I love the song, and the band plays it with aplomb, the 12 string is missing from the live version and that always is a bit of a let down…but Billy Duffy certainly makes the most of what he has and scorched his way through the song.

After a rudimentary walk off…the band returned for a three song encore, which began with an explosive Wild Flower, then transitioned to a less than stellar Rain ( a great song but which suffers because it has been reworked for live shows, no doubt due to Astbury’s vocal limitations) and finally ended with a delirious Love Removal Machine that was a perfect cap to a fantastic show.

My biggest complaint about the show was that it felt too short. The band played for about an hour and twenty minutes or so and it felt like an abbreviated set. That said, I can also understand that the reason why Astbury was in such high spirits and so energetic was maybe that he knew he only had to do his thing for an hour and half and then go back home (he and Duffy both now live in Los Angeles).

While the show could have been longer, I have no complaints about the quality. The Cult gave everything they had and it was certainly well worth the price of admission. Speaking of which, the tickets we had cost around $58 or so, and we had excellent seats on the lower end of the North Terrace. My recommendation is if you are a marginal Cult fan, they are definitely worth seeing live in a mid-sized venue. You will definitely see Billy Duffy in all his amazing guitar glory, and you might, like me at The Greek the other night, get to see the splendor of Ian Astbury - Rock Star.

SET LIST

Sun King

New York City

Automatic Blues

Sweet Soul Sister

American Horse

Soul Asylum

Edie (Ciao baby)

Fire Woman

Rise

American Gothic

Spiritwalker

The Phoenix

She Sells Sanctuary

ENCORE

Wild Flower

Rain

Love Removal Machine

©2019

Muse - The Forum: A Review

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MUSE - THE FORUM - MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2019

Last Monday night I ventured out among the hoi polloi to see the band Muse, whose Simulation Theory tour had rolled into town for a one night stand at the Los Angeles Forum.

Muse is a difficult band to accurately describe. The English power-trio made up of Matt Bellamy (lead vocals, guitar, keyboard), Chris Wolstenholme (bass, backing vocals) and Dominic Howard (drums) are sort of an amalgam of arena rock, prog rock, hard rock and electronica that over their twenty year career have consistently churned out a cavalcade of catchy alt-political anthems. If Roger Waters’ led Pink Floyd (Animals, Final Cut), Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust incarnation, Queen, Rush and The Who in their rock opera phase (in this case especially Tommy), were all thrown into a blender and mixed together, you’d get Muse. That is not to say that Muse is as good as any of those bands but just to give you an indication of their rock and roll DNA.

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Muse have released eight studio albums, all of them in one form or another specifically themed “concept albums”, that have examined everything from alienation in space to physics to conspiratorial militarism to propaganda and nearly everywhere in between. The band’s latest, Simulation Theory, is a synth-driven, pop-rock psuedo-opera exploring a manufactured video-game/matrix reality and political dysfunction that taps heavily into science fiction and 80’s pop culture. The album cover is reminiscent of the poster for Spielberg’s 80’s nostalgia film from last year Ready Player One, and the album touches upon similar themes.

Muse can be a polarizing band, some think they are one of the best rock bands in the world while others think they are a derivative, cheesy embarrassment. I understand the conflict even if I don’t agree with it. Muse are undoubtedly full of bombast and artistic ambition…I mean what other modern rock band has the confidence, if not arrogance, to continually make concept albums and rock operas? But with that said, this is rock and roll and a certain level of bombast and artistic arrogance is helpful if not required.

I am not a Muse cultist, but after discovering them when their 2006 radio-friendly album Black Holes and Revelations was in heavy rotation, I certainly became a fan. That album, which featured the hits “Take a Bow”, “Starlight”, “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Knights of Cydonia”, was like a guitar-driven breath of fresh air for rock…or the genre’s last gasp…depending on your perspective.

Black Holes and Revelations then led me to their earlier albums, Absolution (2003) and Origin of Symmetry(2001), both of which energetically lay the groundwork for their later breakthrough success.

The Resistance (2009), and its infectious call to arms “Uprising”, kept the bands momentum going by admirably following up Black Holes and Revelations. 2nd Law (2012) and Drones (2015) came soon after and were solid albums but failed to capture as much of the cultural imagination as their earlier work. Simulation Theory came out last year and even though it is more pop-oriented than the preceding albums, it too failed to get much attention from our rock-allergic culture.

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Which leads us to the Simulation Theory tour and Monday night at The Forum. I own the majority, but not all, of Muse’s albums but I have never seen them live. My friend, the music afficianado Fire Thorn, saw them on their last tour and highly recommended them to me, but I still hesitated to buy tickets. Then in a moment of weakness I recently noticed they hadn’t entirely sold out The Forum so I searched and found a good deal on some nice seats and I took the plunge.

The Forum is a terrific venue for music. My first experience there was thanks to a friend who is a big shot in the music industry who got me in to see Van Halen rehearse for their first reunion tour in 2007. Van Halen was one of my favorite bands when I was a kid, so getting to see a private show by the band at The Forum for me and 14 other people was a magical experience that emotionally attached me to the venue for life.

Getting to The Forum is pretty easy, but getting out of there after a show is a total traffic nightmare. My night got off to a good start though when I found a sneaky good place to park across the street from The Forum that only cost $5 more than the arena parking and helped us to escape quickly and unscathed after the show.

The opening act was the band Walk the Moon which I had never heard of, but then when they started to play I realized they had a song that my friends two year old daughter is crazy about titled, “Shut Up and Dance”. My first impressions of Walk the Moon were that I was not particularly impressed. As my date, the inimitable Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf noted, they are like if Flock of Seagulls and N’Sync had a baby….or as I added…had an abortion. To be fair, the band has talent, no doubt, but the songs were weak and it just wasn’t my thing. My one observation was that the lead singer has a decent voice but he is a little TOO good a dancer…and the general rule when it comes to lead singers is that they should move well (think Mick Jaggar or Jim Morrison) but not dance too well.

After Walk the Moon walked off the stage, which was followed by an interminably long wait that had John Carpenter music as its soundtrack, Muse hit the stage around 9 pm, and turned The Forum into ground zero in the war for rock and roll’s survival.

The band opened with the first song off of Simulation Theory, the mood setting Algorithm which brought the near capacity crowd to its feet. The audience was jumping and singing along from the get go and the energy ran high as they stayed on their feet for the entire two hour show.

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Rock is dead is a refrain I hear often, mostly because I am the one saying it, but I can attest that on Monday, March 11th, at The Forum, rock was alive and well and kicking…hard. Muse put on an astonishing show, one of the very best I have ever seen. That is the thing about Muse, they don’t just play music and play it exceedingly well, they put on a SHOW. The stage set, the costumes, the “dancers”…it was all a fantastic spectacle.

Any band that puts out concept album after concept album like Muse does is an artistically ambitious one, and that ambition was on full display at The Forum. Lead singer and guitarist Matt Bellamy, who at different times wore electronic goggles, an electronic suit, or both, was often accompanied by “dancers” that looked like a Kubrickian marching band of demonic robots. These dancers would sometimes hang from the ceiling in front of giant video screens, or bang large drums, or wear video face masks displaying an upside down American flag (the sign for distress), or would wield glowing light weapons.

In some ways the show that Muse put on could be interpreted as a parody of a rock show, with all the bells and whistles being a sign of decadence, but the one thing that stops that from happening is the impressive and impeccable musicianship of the band.

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Bellamy is a powerful singer whose voice maintains its strength and clarity even when he hits his falsetto, which is often. His guitar playing is spectacular as well, both muscular and precise, and rattles you to your bones. Bellamy is not the most charismatic stage presence on the planet, so he is greatly aided by the Greek chorus of techno-dancers from hell that amplify the story of each song.

Bassist Chris Wolstenholme is the hidden gem in the band. His bass playing is superb but it is his backing vocals that are even more impressive. Wolstenholme’s vocals perfectly bolster and mix with Bellamy’s, and give the band a rich vocal texture that elevates the material.

Drummer Dominic Howard is the heavy-handed beast who lays the foundation from which Bellamy’s voice and volcanic guitar blast off. Although the band is a power trio, they do have an added musician on tour, a keyboard/secondary guitar player, who is tucked next to Howard during the show and who adds to the gigantic tsunami of sound the band produces.

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The band played for two hours and not once did the energy in the building even remotely dissipate. Even though Simulation Theory has not sold very well, the audience absolutely loved the new material and much to my surprise knew the words to all of the new songs. My date Lady Dusseldorf had never heard Simulation Theory at all and even she got swept away by the tribal love for the new songs. In total, Muse played eight songs off of Simulation Theory and every single one of them was instantaneously met with rapturous cries of approval from the faithful.

The highlights of the show are almost too numerous to count as the whole thing was a supernova of highlights. But if I have to choose the best parts I would say Pressure and Uprising were the best songs in the first quarter of the show, with Mercy and the ferocious rebel anthem Time is Running Out being mid-show highlights. The climax of the show, from “Take a Bow” to the infectious “Starlight” to the ludicrously phenomenal encore medley to the closer, “Knights of Cydonia”, was deliriously and deliciously intoxicating.

Muse may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like hard arena rock music wrapped in a captivating rock and roll spectacle, then I urge you to go see Muse live, I promise that you’ll be impressed…I sure as hell was. Rock may be dying, but last Monday night at The Forum Muse proved that they won’t let it go down without a nasty fight.

SET LIST

Algorithm

Pressure

Psycko

Break it to Me

Uprising

Propaganda

Plug In Baby

The Dark Side

Super Massive Black Hole

Thought Contagion

Interlude

Hysteria

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable

Dig Down

Madness

Mercy

Time is Running Out

Houston Jam

Take a Bow

Prelude

Starlight

ENCORE

Algorithm

Stockholm Syndrome/Assassin/Reapers/The Handler/New Born

Knights of Cydonia

©2019