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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New York City
Sweet Soul Sister
Edie (Ciao baby)
She Sells Sanctuary
Love Removal Machine