The Cure at ACL Fest: When you have great songs, it's more than nostalgia
For a band whose sound was so deeply rooted in the 1980s, and whose identity remains so heavily associated with that era, it’s remarkable how much the Cure’s memorable pop songs feel increasingly timeless while the decades march on.
As they rolled out two dozen of those tunes for a Saturday evening crowd at the Honda Stage on day two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the reason gradually became apparent. Much as they were known for their goth image and their new-wave musical mix, at the root of it all is the kind of songwriting skill that allows the very best bands to transcend the trends of their youth.
Robert Smith has always had it down. And, to his legions of fans’ delight, even at 60 he seems to have lost none of the distinctive vocal presence that made the Cure’s music so distinctive in the first place. Close your eyes and this could still have been the late 1980s, judging just from the richness of Smith’s high-end warble and his bandmates’ spot-on mix of clean guitars cutting across panoramic washes of keys.
Open your eyes and you might still think you’re in a time warp, because a lot of the fans dancing and singing along in the crowd were in their 20s or younger. That’s how you know the Cure’s music has persevered. It wasn’t just Gen-X-ers doing the nostalgia dive at Zilker, though certainly there was plenty of that, too. But a lot of festgoers who weren't yet born when the Cure hit its commercial peak have sought out the band’s songs, and fallen in love with them too.
As much as the big-band lineups of Brittany Howard and Gary Clark Jr. helped both of those acts play memorable sets on the fest’s two biggest stages earlier in the day, give credit to the Cure for knowing how to do this exactly right with just a five-member core. With Smith almost from the beginning has been bassist Simon Gallup, who still sports knee-worn jeans like they never went out of style. Keyboardist Roger O’Donnell and drummer Jason Cooper, each with more than 20 years of Cure tenure, fit their parts perfectly. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels, on board since 2012, looks slightly professorial by comparison, but his playing is right in pocket with the band’s sound.
It’s worth noting that of the Cure’s three-dozen-odd charting singles, almost half of them actually came after 1990, despite the band’s reputation as 1980s icons. Granted, their set drew largely from that ’80s heyday, especially a seven-song encore that ended with a reach all the way back to their 1979 breakthrough “Boys Don’t Cry.” But 1992’s instant-hit “Friday I’m in Love” also got everyone joining in, even way in the back of the crowd after some festgoers had drifted west when Childish Gambino’s set ended.
Favorites? Everybody’s got ’em, and for me the band couldn’t top the mid-set one-two punch of “In Between Days” and “Just Like Heaven.” Things kind of stalled a bit after that, with the long-and-winding jams of “Shake Dog Shake” and “Disintegration” closing out a main set that begged for the rapid-fire-hits encore they obligingly delivered in their final half-hour (after sneaking the decidedly non-festival-like “Lullaby” into the first spot).
Smith almost inadvertently caused an early-news-flash for ACL 2020 when he promised, at the end, “See you again next year!” He quickly caught himself and corrected: “See you again next WEEK!” They’ll be back on this stage in the same time slot for the festival’s second weekend. No doubt the Cure fans young and old will dance and sing and smile again. And while it may not be next year, don’t be surprised to see the Cure here again at some point. Because these songs, man, they really have stood the test of time.
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