Review: The Cult at Rams Head Live, Nov. 2; Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy as strong as they were in 1985
Midnight Sun contributor Evan Haga reviews the Baltimore show of 26-year-old British metal band The Cult.
The Cult, the long-running English outfit headed by vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, embodies an ongoing fight between brains and brawn, between pretension and the hard-boiled ethos of heavy metal. In short, between Astbury and Duffy.
Though that dichotomy is responsible for the band’s enduring appeal, it also makes for awkward moments.
When the band played a respectably filled Rams Head Live Tuesday night, they played to both strengths.
They played "Sweet Soul Sister," an excellent, late-’80s rock anthem whose lyrics are essentially a come-on, but did it in front of projections depicting social unrest (Black Panthers, an upside-down American flag). At one point, Astbury even faced the projections and raised his right gloved fist.
He also encouraged fans to steal the band's new music if they have to, but only because it would help him "keep [his] kids out of college." And even more laughably, he dedicated the song "White" to "pagans, wiccans and Buddhists," but also to "drunkards."(Guess which demographic applauded most?)
Irreverence and self-seriousness can be an uncomfortable mix, but the mash-up, along with strong guitars, has served the Cult well for 26 years.
It was also certainly true of last night’s 17-song set, which allowed a band that has dramatically set and followed trends throughout its career to make a remarkably consistent statement for its continued relevance.
Everything here was given a taut, well-rehearsed hard-rock glow, yet somehow the character of the individual songs and their eras remained.
In other words, “Rain,” “Nirvana” and “She Sells Sanctuary,” released in 1985, when the Cult was a muscular new wave and goth-rock band, rocked as convincingly as songs off 1987's "Electric" -- when the band approximated a college rock version of AC/DC -- or 1989’s "Sonic Temple", when the group assumed the guise of a thinking man’s Guns 'N’ Roses.
Even sonic aberrations in the band’s catalogue—say, the alt-metal crunch of 2001’s “Rise”—melded seamlessly with the remainder of the set. New material, including the Sunset Strip throwback “Every Man and Woman Is a Star” and the ballad “Embers,” was fine. And thankfully, the uninspired ’90s were mostly passed over.
Astbury sounded solid. He admitted to having a cold, and some of his longer, more glorious recorded parts—the choruses of “Sweet Soul Sister” and “Fire Woman”—were curtailed or replaced by his stout tenor bark. But his voice continues to flaunt a signature timbre: a clear, rangy croon, full of bravado, with a might that Astbury deftly controls.
(Jim Morrison came to mind, and not just because of the voice or Astbury’s work in the reformed Doors; the singer also wore long hair and a thick beard, evoking the late-period Lizard King.)
Billy Duffy, however, was much better than on record, and even better than I last remember in a live setting. He made an airtight argument for his unsung guitar heroism, against great rock guitarists of a similar poise who have much higher profiles: Slash, Zakk Wylde, Angus Young and even Billy Gibbons, et al.
But unlike Slash or Wylde, who tend to shred non-stop through an entire show, Duffy exhibited a good deal of taste as well. On the "Love"-era tunes he returned to his Gretsch White Falcon guitar and was content to faithfully recreate those leads.
They tend to be strong, simple and melodic, where no tinkering was necessary. On the more blatant hard-rock exercises, his soloing on his Gibson Les Paul was breathtakingly fleet and fluid, and sturdily supported by rhythm guitarist Mike Dimkich, drummer John Tempesta and bassist Chris Wyse.
By the time “Love Removal Machine” sent Duffy into a windmilling frenzy, any sort of pretension or pseudo-intellectual conceit about Astbury or the band was a distant memory.
New York City
Sweet Soul Sister
She Sells Sanctuary
Love Removal Machine
Evan Haga is a frequent Midnight Sun contributor, and the managing editor of JazzTimes. Erik Maza edited this post.
Photo: The Cult official website