Over the years, Robert Smith’s once spiky black hair has migrated even further up and out while turning a ghostlier shade of its former hue. But the part undead rock star, part electrocuted Spanish Moss effect only intensifies his stage presence, which was nothing short of electric as The Cure closed out Voodoo Fest Sunday night with an exceptional, two-hour long trek through their entire catalogue.
Singing with the same evocative mix of heartbreak and hopefulness that likely drew his audience to the music in high school, Smith’s latest configuration of the Cure (including bassist Simon Gallup and on-off Cure keyboardist Roger O’Donnell) opened on a dark note with ’84s “Shake Dog Shake.” Fast-forwarding a few years to the “Disintegration”-era swirl of more ambient hits like “Pictures of You,” the band then rocked its way through essential classics like “Hot Hot Hot!!!,” “The Caterpillar” and “In Between Days.”
As the set drew to a close, they played hopscotch with newish material like the powerful 2008 track, “The Hungry Ghost,” and less celebrated gems like “One Hundred Years” from 1982’s “Pornography.” Throughout, the old stuff was just the right mix of familiar and revitalized, with Smith reworking little more than the cadence at which he wrapped his blood-colored lips around lyrics about wistfulness, longing and bliss. Occasionally, a minor change like the lack of a sax solo to signal the cathartic bridge on “In Between Days” updated things without compromising the song’s spirit.
Early in the set, Smith introduced “Burn” from the 1994 Brandon Lee cult classic soundtrack by noting that they’d never before performed it live. A gut-rattling extended drum solo followed, then led into a bleakly beautiful chorus of low, grinding guitars and shadow-filled lyrical images.
After closing with “Give Me It” (from the same album as the opening number), the band returned for a high-energy, five-song encore that played like a mini-retrospective of their most upbeat and unforgettable singles with Smith playfully hissing his way through the “The Lovecats” and recalling all of the sexual tension and urgency that reverberated through his 1985 recording of “Close To Me.” “Let’s Go To Bed” and “Why Can’t I Be You” followed.
By the time the first bittersweet chords of “Boys Don’t Cry” bounced off the stage, the audience’s collective rehashed teenaged romantic angst and emotion-drenched rapture was almost palpable. In the end, the set list underscored what made those so many of those songs so moving, from their cleverly wrought and tight endings to their juxtaposition of perfect pop melodies against sad themes.
The night before, Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails had ushered a similar audience demographic through songs that also seemed to speak for lovelorn, frustrated high schoolers everywhere back in the early ’90s. But fans hoping to relive their first heartbreaks (or revenge fantasies) with memories from ’89s “Pretty Hate Machine” only got a few such payoffs in the form of “Terrible Lie,” “Sanctified” and the raucous pre-encore closer, “Head Like a Hole.” More of the set was instead dedicated to NIN’s new release, “Hesitation Marks,” which features Reznor at his bleak and industrial best.
As for the relocation of the festival from its previously sprawling City Park location to the new festival grounds, the biggest trade-off was undeniably sound-related. Short of standing front and center in the main stage throng, it was virtually impossible to find anywhere that the bleed between stages was bearable. And when it came to the hard-edged beats and hollers pulsing off Reznor’s stage and onto others, that made for some distractingly soupy listening.
It was frustrating, too, especially in the case of Dr. John’s all-star performance with the Real Night Trippers, which was forced to compete for sound waves with the more heavily-produced Cure behind him. Growing pains, given Voodoo’s new location, may be unavoidable. But it’s difficult to imagine how a pairing like that on the Flambeau and Ritual stages could work in the future.