NEW YORK (Billboard) - As any fan will tell you, there are two faces of the Cure.
One is that of a quirky, iconic pop band whose skill at composing endearingly offbeat radio hits made them the crossover darlings of the pre-grunge alt-rock scene. The other is that of a brooding post-punk archetype, whose downbeat songs of angst, sorrow and all-around misery have allowed frontman Robert Smith to reign as the unchallenged King of Goth for almost 30 years.
But one thing the Cure doesn’t have is an identity crisis. Smith and Co. know that their bread is sufficiently buttered on both sides, so it’s no surprise that equal helpings of darkness and light were brought to New York City on June 20 and 21 for the final two dates of the band’s Cure 4 tour.
At the first show — a sold-out appearance at Madison Square Garden — the group proved its continued prowess as the arena-rocking monster it became during the mid-80s. The band treated the 17,000 fans to a marathon, 35-song set of classic hits and new tunes from its forthcoming 13th studio album (due in September).
Most great frontmen — Bono, for example — are effective due to rock-god bravado and good old-fashioned showmanship. Comparatively, the mop-topped Smith seems like alt-rock’s court jester than one of its kings. During the show, he flopped around the stage (when not standing motionless behind the mic), often forgot the lyrics to his biggest hits and mumbled incoherently between songs. But these factors only seemed to increase Smith’s anti-hero cachet. The more awkward he appeared onstage, the more favorably the crowd responded.
After a typically moody opening, the band quickly leapt into its lighter fare, nestling the upbeat melodies of crowd favorites like “Friday I’m in Love,” and “Just Like Heaven” with new material like “The Only One.” While the group occasionally dipped into darker material — the ominous “Prayers for Rain” was an early highlight — the band mostly played to a crowd that was clearly in the mood for a party.
But the Cure had a different game plan for their final show, at the more-intimate Radio City Music Hall. While the MSG set was designed to woo even the most casual of Cure listeners, much of the Radio City show seemed geared to thrill superfans alone. After lulling the audience with the strains of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the band wandered through a somber, deliberately paced set that relied largely on obscure album cuts and B-sides.
Though the band intended to add an air of tension to the performance, some stress was derived from elements other than the music. Guitarist Porl Thompson — who drives much of the band’s melodies now that the Cure performs without a keyboardist — was plagued with sound problems, a fact that clearly aggravated Smith at times.
But where there had been a brooding king of pain during the opening 24-song set, Smith emerged as his more jovial self for the band’s first encore. After launching into the new single “Freakshow,” Smith danced clumsily with bassist Simon Gallup before — in an uncharacteristically rock-star move — climbing the famous Radio City steps up to the balcony where he serenaded fans in the “cheap” seats.
The festive mood continued with upbeat gems like “Close to Me” and “Why Can’t I Be You,” and a second encore that consisted of early, punky classics like “10:15 Saturday Night” and “Killing An Arab,” which displayed the band’s newfound power as a four-piece.
The band came full circle and concluded the three-hour concert with a sinister version of ‘A Forest’ and the unreleased rarity “Forever,” leaving the crowd on a delightfully down note. Though each of the band’s New York performances had its merits, it was simply a case of once not being enough. At the end of the day, the complete Cure experience could only attained by attending both shows — which ultimately seems what the band intended all along.