The dangers for any band that once made its name on the kinetic energy of youthful exuberance is that the onslaught of accumulated years will sap that essential essence like some pet leach of Father Time. Tis better to burn out than to fade away, of course, but until that comes to pass no one wants to get caught with a case of rock & roll impotence.
The Clean began in New Zealand in the late ’70s and have gone through intermittent spurts of activity, disbanding only to reunite once again. In the 21st century, the trio of middle-aged men has seemingly settled into a permanent flux, with records coming down the pipeline when the band fancies and short tours of the States made in an equally sporadic fashion. Indeed, there was no rhyme or reason to the latest handful of American dates—no new album or greatest hits package to promote.
Openers Times New Viking, who’ve played the bulk of The Clean’s recent US dates, similarly wasn’t onboard for promotional obligations, but simply because they’re friendly with their heroes. While the Columbus trio (which includes new Agit writer Elizabeth Murphy), was the younger portion of this equation, with five albums and lots of touring, they too have obviously grown up a lot since I first laid ears on the band eight years ago. Still, it seemed as if the trio had aged more than the year that had passed since I last saw them. There was a cohesion and force that pervaded the entire set, and aside from one instance when guitarist Jared Phillips needed to tune his instrument, they ripped into it with a rejuvenated sense of purpose. Mainstays like “Devo and Wine” and “Love Your Daughters” kept a taut balance of frenzy and control, with Phillips’ guitar leading the charge. They saved the best for last, though, when they trotted out “Lion & Oil,” one of the first songs TNV ever put to tape. While still possessing all the energy of youth, the song had morphed into something more accomplished and self-possessed, in a way representational of the band’s own transformation.
The Clean reared their heads soon after, beginning with “Point That Thing Somewhere Else.” The track, which comes from 1982’s Boodle Boodle Boodle EP, was indicative of the direction the night was headed. With their most recent album, Mister Pop, several years behind them, the Kiwi three-piece stuck to the body of songs that first earned them their reputation for great pop jangle. The years could be seen on their faces, but not in the music they created, and subsequent cuts like “Secret Place,” which featured bassist Robert Scott’s plaintive vocals, and “Someone,” on which drummer Hamish Kilgour took the lead, were bursting at the seams with energy. They also ventured into The Great Unwashed’s “Born in the Wrong Time,” a track from The Clean’s downtime in the ’80s. Other highlights included runs through “Drawing to a Hole” and “Anything Could Happen,” on which guitarist David Kilgour delivered Cartesian lines over his own propulsive licks. They finished out the evening with “Tally Ho” and “Oddity,” both of which were full of the kind of freneticism they possessed when first cut to wax. My only complaint was the same as when The Clean came to promote Mister Pop in 2010, that their set was too short. It seems a waste to travel halfway around the world (well, at least two of the three of them did), only to play for an hour and neglect such a large portion of their songbook. But then with age comes wisdom, so maybe they know better than I.
A similar dynamic of dilemmas as discussed above were at play at The Cult’s performance this past weekend on the beachside boardwalk of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. The nearly three decades–old band was preceded by a couple of groups half its age. The first, Icarus Line, did little to impress anyone, with singer Joe Cardamone’s Iggy-aping coming off more mall-perusing sheep than streetwalking cheetah. Conversely, Against Me seemed to go over well with the crowd, a good portion of which was singing along with every word, even those referencing singer Tom Gabel’s recently revealed gender issues. As much as the band’s fans ate it up, though, Against Me’s brand of pop-punk lacked any bite, and their set became one long blur of indistinctive anthems.
By contrast, The Cult came across as slightly grizzled veterans. They launched immediately into “Lil Devil,” which familiar as it is, sounded a little toothless by comparison. But the band apparently was just getting warmed up, so after a run through the leadoff track from new album Choice of Weapon, “Honey from a Knife,” they were ready to go for “Rain,” a classic from Love. In general, the tracks from the new album melded well with older material like “Nirvana” (also from Love) and “Fire Woman.” Singer Ian Astbury looked more alien biker than shaman demon, wearing colored shades, a furry collared vest, and his hair slicked back. His demeanor was similarly strange, veering between schmaltzy showman and rock wild child, and where he once sashayed around the stage, he seemed stiff, staying front and center and shaking a tambourine more than his hips. And with Astbury taking liberties with his delivery of each song, it was hard to tell if he was avoiding certain notes or simply trying to alleviate some sense of monotony from having performed many of these cuts hundreds of times. Indeed, it seemed like he gave us more of his pipes’ power on the newer material than on, say, “She Sells Sanctuary.”
On the other hand, guitarist Billy Duffy, while no more animated, provided the visceral spark through his instrument. This was particularly evident on “The Phoenix,” whose wailing six-strings were an unexpected highlight. The song I least expected to hear was “Spirit Walker,” from the band’s debut full-length, Dreamtime. In many ways contrasting with much of the set, it still revealed the first incarnation of Duffy’s guitar style. After “Sanctuary,” the band exited the stage. When they returned, Astbury explained that they were being unusually spontaneous, which resulted in a run through “Rise,” one of the peaks of the underrated Beyond Good and Evil. (Indeed, the song wasn’t on the setlist I caught a glimpse of while in the photo pit.) They then ended the night with “Love Removal Machine.” My general feeling was (again like above) that the performance was too short at just over an hour. Despite their bout of spontaneity, the overall impression was a performance that never pushed the band’s limits, and hence felt a little scripted. As such, The Cult, while entertaining, didn’t enthrall the way they once did.