There's something exciting and a bit terrifying about yellow house lights and that slightly chemical, humid cement smell in an arena before a concert.
A woman next to me with a plastic tray of nachos slapped her friend's knee: "A real '80s band!" I mean, sure, to hundreds of people at the Lakefront Arena on May 11, happily singing along to "Just Like Heaven," The Cure is just that, and that's fine. But what The Cure did over two sold-out nights in New Orleans to open its 2016 North American tour wasn't a nostalgia cash-in. It opened the vaults. Over the next several months, I imagine these setlists will change, a lot, but for nearly three hours on its final night in New Orleans, The Cure signaled its vitality and endurance beyond its familiar songbook.
The lights went out and the band walked onstage to the tell-tale chimes from Disintegration
opener "Plainsong" — though a false start cut the first notes of the song and the band started over. The song's lush, cinematic synthesizer swells open the album and set the tone for its massive, singular atmosphere, and it does the same for anything it touches, turning something otherwise morbid or insignificant into something hopeful.
I don't like to think about turning 30. There's the fear of failure, the regret, the overwhelming sense that I didn't do anything right and won't ever. I think about it a lot. I thought about it before the show.
Smith wrote Disintegration,
the band's 1989 masterpiece, before he turned 30, fueled by an existential dread and looming fear of disappointment as he had yet to make what he could consider a great work. It's full of heartbreak, potential heartbreak, the inevitability of death, the self-awareness of self-destruction and the futility of all of those things. It ended up one of the best-selling, definitive and beloved albums of the band's career.
I love Disintegration
. It's an immense, dramatic blanket. It has a mood
. It's unsettling and romantic, the sound of standing alone and staring into a nothing or into space and thinking painfully about everything
and somehow nothing all at once. Its love songs ring of despair despite their simple proclamations — "Lovesong" is both a promise and a sacrifice — and its dread is as privately comforting and warm as it is a horizonless pop opera. Despite how heavy it feels, and as much as you can wrap yourself in it and let its "misery" completely burrow into your dumb heart and idiot brain, all it takes is Roger O'Donnell's sweeping, church-like synthesizer strings on "Plainsong" to immediately be transported somewhere bigger and beautiful. (Also, the recording sessions were "really fun"
— the band played a lot of pool and ate pizza with magic mushrooms.)
I began to think the band would play the entire album — "Plainsong" was followed by "Pictures of You" and "Closedown," tracks one though three on the album. Instead, The Cure played 10 of 12 songs from the album — nearly a third of the set.
When The Cure announced
its tour late last year, it promised "37 years of Cure songs, mixing hits, rarities, favourites and as yet unreleased tracks in a brand new stage production." Its first night in New Orleans on May 10 included six songs from Wish,
songs from Seventeen Seconds
and The Top
and b-sides and deep cuts. Its second show spanned nearly a dozen albums and singles — the band repeated only six songs both nights among the nearly 60 songs performed. "It takes three shows to do all the songs we do," Smith joked. "So come back again tomorrow."
Smith's voice is ageless, as vulnerable and tender — seemingly on the brink of an exhausting avalanche of tears — as it is on 30-year-old records, and still capable of belting out long notes and near-screams. Draped in a loose black shirt and topped with his signature mop of tangled black hair, he was playful, grinning and giggling through songs and introductions. He contorted Disintegration
's "Lullaby" into something more muscular, more-sinister and spider-filled, sneering his lyrics and sort of dancing to shake off its icy riffs.
Then there was the angular, aggressive funk of "Hot Hot Hot !!!" and a heavier middle set with "Want" and "Us or Them" and a brooding finale of "The Hungry Ghost," "Prayers for Rain" and the propulsive "Disintegration."
Simon Gallup's bass anchored the terror of "Fascination Street" — inspired by a night out in New Orleans — and he bounced around throughout the show, posing near the front stage monitors when not slinging his bass to his knees or dropping to them. The arena kept his bass near the front of the mix, thankfully — his riffs are essential, and the arena kept the volume cranked without losing any clarity in the mix or among the five players onstage.
For the first of five (five!) encores, the band performed the unlikely finale of "The Same Deep Water as You," the set's final song from Disintegration
. "The next song's not really an encore song, but I think it is," Smith said — it's a fitting goodbye, the album's morbid, drowning dirge and "kiss goodnight" here was a love letter to fans: "I will kiss you forever on nights like this / I will kiss you, I will kiss you / And we shall be together."
The band returned for a second encore with "some songs from the Faith
album period" — "Other Voices, " "Charlotte Sometimes" and "Primary" — and followed with a third encore with new song "Step into the Light
," which the band debuted the night before, followed by guitar-heavy '90s singles "Never Enough" and "Wrong Number," almost-straight-forward, ecstatic stabs at Brit-pop and swarming with distortion.
Its fourth encore included fan-favorite "Burn," which made its live debut in New Orleans at Voodoo in 2013
, and "It Can Never Be the Same
," another new song the band debuted the night before. And for its fifth (fifth!) encore, the band performed its crowd-pleasing 1980 single "Boys Don't Cry" — though here it was an anticlimactic ending to an overwhelming two hours of arena-filling sound, replacing the taut, minimal punk song and its simple, urgent riff with a cleaner, "bigger" performance.
I would hardly call that a disappointment — it's a great song, not rendered any less great by that performance. What was left of the crowd (it was late) sang along to its chorus while leaning against the balconies and dancing on the steps. For those few hours and their afterglow, that saddle of darkness was ripped right the hell off my back.
"Thank you very much, New Orleans," Smith said. "Dare I say we'll see you again."
Here's the setlist:
"Pictures of You"
"A Night Like This"
"The End of the World"
"Doing the Unstuck"
"Just Like Heaven"
"This Twilight Garden"
"Hot Hot Hot !!!"
"Us or Them"
"The Hungry Ghost"
"Prayers for Rain"
Encore No. 1:
"The Same Deep Water as You"
Encore No. 2:
Encore No. 3:
"Step into the Light"
Encore No. 4:
"It Can Never Be the Same"
Encore No. 5:
"Boys Don't Cry"