The Cure Returns With Bestival: Live 2011

January 27th, 2012  |  Published in Featured

Now in its eighth year, Bestival has been bringing a diverse musical lineup together for an annual Isle of Wight blowout to benefit the region’s troubled youth.  Masterminded by English D.J. and impresario Rob Da Bank, the event drew 50,000 to witness performances by Bjork, P.J. Harvey, Brian Wilson, Big Audio Dynamite, and Public Enemy this past September.

English mood-rockers The Cure top-lined the three day show with a two-and-a-half hour set that served as both a hits revue as well as a test for their scaled-down four man lineup.  A live document is now available, with Sunday Best offering the The Cure: Bestival Live 2011 as a souvenir for fans who attended and a curio for listeners who couldn’t.  All profits from sales of the double-disc will be funneled to the Isle of Wight Youth Trust, a reputable charity renowned for counseling kids and their parents since the early 80s, when The Cure issued seminal albums Pornography and The Top.

Boasting thirty-two tracks (with some brooding jams and dirges surpassing seven minutes), Bestival surveys The Cure’s prodigious catalog from Three Imaginary Boys (1979) through 4:13 Dream (2008), placing radio favorites like “Why Can’t I Be You,” “Friday I’m in Love,” and “Boys Don’t Cry” alongside more recent (or more obscure, depending on your familiarity with the group) cuts like “Hungry Ghost,” “A Night Like This,” and “The Only One.”

Given that front man Robert Smith has steered various incarnations of the band through previous live albums and DVDs like Concert, Entreat, and Trilogy 2003, one wonders what—if anything—distinguishes this particular show from other previously marketed shows containing many of the same tracks.  The answer, in short, is numbers.

Specifically, the difference is manifested in the number of players onstage and their respective ages.  With the departure of longtime co-guitarist Porl Thompson in 2010, The Cure effectively became a four-piece, with Smith alone handling six-string duties.  Joining him at here are bassist Simon Gallup, drummer Jason Cooper, and returning keyboardist Roger O’Donnell—who crafted many of the quirky electronic sounds decorating the band’s mid-years material.

The group’s age is also factor—even if the ages of individual players aren’t.  Bestival is the work of an older, mature Cure, if you will.  Smith, no longer the snarky teen who wrote literature-minded pop at the cusp of the punk era, is now a respected musical icon in his fifties who seems happy with what he’s accomplished—and happy to use his talents to help others.

Smith’s songwriting acumen survived the nineties and naughties along with his tossled hair and smeared lipstick.  Lacking a second guitarist to play with and against, Smith becomes solely responsible for a majority of the tune’s musical leitmotifs, leads, and fills.  Some enthusiasts will doubtlessly complain that Thompson’s absence resulted in a loss of sonic density and texture at this gig—but Smith acquits himself marvelously, with O’Donnell filling any would-be spaces with lush background chords, exotic scales, and amusing arpeggios.  Without a fifth member contributing to the mix, some of songs actually breathe better than their studio versions, even when played faster or with more rock ‘n roll gusto than usual.  As a whole, Bestival 2011 sounds a bit drier and less-polished than live Cure of yore—almost as if someone manning the console that night hit the “record” button as an afterthought, trusting the mix to the engineers on duty.

But that’s the beauty of Bestival, and it’s interesting to hear veteran hit-makers like Smith and Co. working it out live, warts and all, on what must have been an immense stage, and without the proverbial safety net.  “Plainsong” and “Open” make for an ethereal start—not inappropriate for The Cure, but the throng at Isle of Wight are (judging by the reaction) clearly tickled when the band busts out the heavy artillery (“Fascination Street,” “In Between Days,” “A Forest”).  The response to the one-two punch of brooding ballad “Lovesong” and melancholy valentine “Just Like Heaven” is overwhelming—but carefully metered so as not to become obtrusive.

Gallup’s busy bass lines are alternately muscular and restrained; he employs effects to give his instrument just the right amount of chug, throb, presence, and overdrive—depending on the tune (many of which are built ‘round his part).  He dominates the mix on songs where bass is paramount (e.g. the funky “Hot, Hot, Hot” and sinewy “Close to Me”) but gets reeled in elsewhere, often sounding like a second guitar (“Push,” “Grinding Halt.”) instead of a low-end linchpin.  Cooper’s drums are sharp and immediate, providing a terrific bedrock of rhythm and punctuation.

Smith still boasts his distinct, whine-rasp-howl voice, but he wisely protects his throat here by choosing his high notes instead of replicating every wail and screech from Bloodflowers and Wish.  His delivery isn’t unlike that on the second CD of Greatest Hits, the 2001 compilation whose terrific bonus acoustic set finds Smith doing only one lead vocal per track, sans back-ups (although the Bestival crowd does help with the dah-dah-dah part on “Lovecats”).  The bandleader also proves himself a nimble ax man, an artful guitarist who can mimic O’Donnell’s keyboard riffs (“Close to Me”), cop simple-but-clever leads (“Boys Don’t Cry”), or let loose with spacey, psychedelic passages (“A Night Like This”).  He dials up some wah-wah for the spider-man’s dinner on the nightmare-themed “Lullaby,” simulates a feline meow for “Lovecats,” but contents himself to jangling away when it’s someone else’s turn to shine.

The lyrics of the re-titled “Killing Another” still capture the psychological turmoil of Albert Camus’ existential tome The Stranger, even if its refrain has been softened for PC times.  It’s just nice to know The Cure are still around after nearly 35 years of spinning on a dizzy edge, serving up “simply delicious” pop-rock for a good cause.

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