The Cure are a 1980s indie ghost ship piloted by the ghoulish Robert Smith, he of the wild tangles of hair, smeared red lipstick, black eyeliner and anxious yelp. But the vessel has run aground. Their last album came out in 2008 and vanished without trace. They have no record contract. Captain Smith and his skeleton crew sing gothic shanties from the back catalogue to kill time while waiting for the tide. Will they sail again?
Their Wembley Arena show, the first of three at the venue, spanned almost three hours. With one intriguing exception, the most recent songs dated from 2000’s Bloodflowers album. Most derived from the band’s peak period, the decade between 1979 and 1989, an impressively long run for such a volatile outfit. The Cure’s history is studded with punch-ups, walkouts and near collapses, fuelled by the unhelpful combination of drugs, alcohol and self-loathing.
The current set-up matches Smith, the only remaining founder, with lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Simon Gallup, keyboardist Roger O’Donnell and drummer Jason Cooper. They were a rum bunch, from the professorial-looking Gabrels, former sideman with David Bowie in his Tin Machine days, to Gallup, a long-term Cure member who played his bass in low-slung guitar-god mode and wore an Iron Maiden T-shirt.
But there was no lack of unity in the musicianship. Thudding bass and crisp drumming made for a powerful rhythmic engine. Gabrels’ guitar-playing mixed jangling tones with harder edges, punctuated by fiery solos. The sound level was loud and the light show was high-wattage, although the staging had nuance too. Three spotlights illuminated Smith and two bandmates during “Three Imaginary Boys”; a jaunty version of “Lovecats” gave O’Donnell’s playful keyboards space to breathe.
“Oh remember, please don’t change,” Smith sang during “Primary”. He hasn’t changed much himself: voice the same high-strung cry, still a charmingly ungainly frontman, ever the misfit even in front of 12,000 fans. A concert-closing rampage through “Killing an Arab”, a relic of the days when outsiders read Camus’s The Outsider, showed that The Cure’s past is in good hands. But an unreleased song debuted earlier, “Step Into the Light”, added an extra charge to the nostalgia. Featuring a sharp vocal performance from Smith, singing on the first and last beat, an emphatic act of projection, it inspired hope for the future.