Emerging from Britain's post-punk scene, the Cult broke big in the U.S. around 1985 after the release of its second album "Love." The sound was gritty and heavy with elements of punk and classic rock, but with a modern and approachable songwriting style that endeared the band to the mainstream.
At its core was the haunting vocals and charismatic presence of front man Ian Astbury, paired with the distinctive riffs of guitarist Billy Duffy. Today, the two are the only remaining original members of the Cult. In its current manifestation, Astbury and Duffy are joined by bassist Chris Wyse (who has performed with Ozzy Osbourne and Mick Jagger, among others), drummer John Tempesta, and touring rhythm guitarist James Stevenson.
The Cult's Facebook page description simply states "Avoiding meatheads since 1984." Watching them perform at the Pageant nearly 30 years after breaking in the U.S., one gets the sense that Astbury and Duffy, along with their cohorts, still possess a punk-rock attitude of playing to please themselves and their core fans and not really giving too much of a shit about what anyone else thinks.
The crowd that turned out on Wednesday night seemed mostly appreciative that their attitude, and music, remained intact. With a closed balcony, the lower level of The Pageant was pretty much full, providing a more intimate rock club feel. Fans (about 75 percent clad in black) crowded in on the dance floor as the band took the stage promptly at 9 p.m. and Astbury began wailing the lyrics to classic "Rain" from the "Love" album. Duffy's guitar cut like a knife while Wyse worked the crowd with his long-necked white bass.
Astbury's appearance was the sole reminder that we've all gotten a bit older. His once long, black hair is now cut short above his shoulders, his formerly taught abs replaced with a middle-aged paunch. But hey, do any of us look like we did in 1985? The important thing is that his voice remains primarily intact. After nearly three decades of touring and recording it may be a bit inconsistent at times -- but that was always the beauty of this band. Though The Cult's albums became more produced throughout the late '80s and '90s, their live show has maintained that hard, raw, garage rock feel in which imperfections are par for the course.
One thing that certainly has not wavered with time is the skill with which Duffy wields his guitar. While Astbury takes center stage as the heart of the band, Duffy's riffs and solos are its soul, and he only seems to have gotten better with age.
Though the Cult has an album forthcoming in 2014, a follow up to 2012's "Choice of Weapon," the band played to its core audience, focusing most of its hour and a half set on favorites and deep cuts from its trifecta of critically acclaimed 80s albums including "Love," Rick Rubin-produced "Electric," and "Sonic Temple."
One of their only forays from that decadent decade, punk-driven "Honey From a Knife" from "Choice of Weapon," fell a bit flat with the audience. Perhaps sensing this, they shifted back quickly to upbeat classic "Lil' Devil."
Other fist-pumpers included "Aphrodisiac Jacket" with Tempesta killing the beats on the drums; "Wildflower;" "King Contrary Man;" "Sun King," which had Astbury bowing in reverence to Duffy's guitar licks; and "Sweet Soul Sister," the enjoyment of which was slightly marred by a guy who insisted on shooting video with flash on his phone during the entire song. (A brief aside: Please stop doing this, people! No one wants to watch your crappy phone video and you are ruining the moment for those who want to be present with the band.)
Astbury grabbed maracas and channeled his inner Jim Morrison for groovy "The Witch," a random and awesome tune from the soundtrack of 1992 film "Cool World." The highlight of the main set, at least for me, was "Phoenix" (which Astbury announced was "for the trippers"), one of the better deep tracks from "Love" that highlighted Duffy's full-throttle shredding, building to a crescendo as Astbury wailed the chorus, "I'm on fire" as we writhed on the dance floor.
They closed the set with raucous "Love Removal Machine," their biggest hit single from "Electric," much to the delight of the crowd, which banged its collective head with hands held high in the air.
After a brief exit, the Cult returned to perform "American Horse," a lesser-known but solid heavy tune from "Sonic Temple." Somewhat predictably, they saved their best for last, closing the show with their first big hit, "She Sells Sanctuary" -- arguably one of the best rock songs of the '80s -- and the crowd once again ate it up.
"Fire Woman" seemed a glaring omission (that garnered a few grumbles in the audience); yet despite its popularity, I respected the band for not pandering to casual fans' desire to hear every single hit. After all, they played much of their best material and gave it 100 percent.
Seeing the Cult is primarily a nostalgia trip for me. I grew up in the 80s and their songs were the anthems of my misspent youth. Admittedly, when I choose to listen to them, I revert to those three key albums upon which their career was built. While I've checked out their more recent efforts, they've never quite resonated in the same way, and I suppose that's to be expected. That said, their energetic live show is proof that they still have the chops they had all those years ago, and I'm grateful I got to go with them on that journey to the bleeding edge of modern hard rock.