The Cult are on a world tour. John Robb caught up with them in Manchester.
Carpet on the stage for the singer, lots of amps, big full colour films backdrop, an air of expectation- this is very much a rock show. The Cult are back in Manchester for guitarist Billy Duffy's homecoming and as he peals the chords out of his iconic Gretsh White Falcon for new Cult song 'Every Man And Woman Is A Star' (title from Aleister Crowley's ”ËBook Of The Law') he is every inch the guitar hero and when Ian Astbury unleashes his still potent voice the Cult hit first gear, the circuit rock band that is still fully capable.
Except it's not quite as simple as that.
Watching the Cult live is a fascinating experience. The eternal yin and yan of rock n roll is played out right in front of view.
The battle between depth and primal riffing, between revolution and rock star, between spirituality and abandon, between pretension and escape is on stage.
Between AC/DC three chord genius, the idealism of Crass and the dark throne of Joy Division- every facet and argument in rock n roll's dream is on stage fighting for space. It's the weird balance between Ian Astbury's esoteric, revolutionary interests and Billy Duffy's Mancunian, no bullshit, guitar crunch that keeps the Cult fascinating and vital.
Astbury seems to be upping the ante at the moment and there's a brilliant series of films on the screen behind the band- from Tibetan monks getting battered by Chinese security during 'Saints Are Down' to native Americans standing up for their rights during an emotive 'Horse Nation'.
The films impact is impossible to tell and they are left hanging loose- a spillage of ideas, powerful imagery in the thick night air- part inspiration, part backdrop.
There's even a really off the wall part in the middle of the set after they play 'Ghosts' when the band go off stage and a ten minute interlude is filled with an avant-garde film about a South Dakota reservation.
It's certainly not your average rock n roll show and causes a minor confusion which is probably the intention. Ian Astbury harangues the audience into taking notice of the film to understand what the band is about. Everyone cheers and is none the wiser and that's the beauty of this whole situation, ostensibly you have a band out touring the world playing its hits like all bands do after a few decades of hard graft at the rock n roll coal face but Ian Astbury still has other ideas and it's these other ideas that still making the Cult, musically a great rock band, fascinating.
What Billy Duffy makes of all this is hard to fathom, ÃÂ a great guitar player he looks like Gordon Ramsey if Gordon Ramsey was a cool rock n roll star and not a bloke who cooks potatoes. Duffy is happy as the band's engine room, the powerhouse that drives the Cult. His guitar playing is perfect and he's honed down the guttural grind that makes great rock n roll. He ÃÂ can also go all eastern and mystical or dark in a catchall of stylish playing that retains it's punk rock edge.
Duffy grew up here in Manchester and the shout out to Wythenshawe goes done predictably well. In his youth he played on the fringes of the local punk scene- for a brief time with the pre-Smiths Morrissey depending which urban myth you believe before going to London for Theatre of Hate. Before he went he taught Johnny Marr a few chords and the pair of them hustled themselves into key roles at the opposite ends of the eighties spectrum- from indie jangle to post goth guitar gunslinger.
Duffy and Astbury were the dream team, the had been the frontman of the Southern Death Cult- a skinny, idealistic youth with sex and idealism on his side, his band were briefly the key band on the post punk scene, taking over from Adam and The Ants who had found the key to the pop machine. Southern Death Cult's dark, tribal sound was perfect for the time and the album they left behind is a key and brilliant document of it's period and one of the best post punk records [that's real post punk and not the modern edited version of the form that has removed all the bands that dressed up but still made ground breaking music].
When Astbury and. Duffy met there were sparks and their journey from Goth standard bearers to Rick Rubin produced stadium rock gods to legends on the live circuit has been one fraught with tension and creativity. When they meet, though, like on the timeless classic 'She Sells Sanctuary' it's sublime and the mosh pit erupts. It's a terrace anthem that seeks spirituality and mysticism- not many people pull that one off- a song that has the freak twist and thermal rock grunt melded and mashed together in one of the perfect eighties rock n roll moments.
There are flashes of a band still striving on the new songs which sound dark and doleful in the best possible way, they are like laments to lost culture and ancient ideas and ideals. It's that sense of tribal community and escape from the modern machine that the Cult hint at and defiantly underline with those imposing backdrop of films.
Astbury, who still retains that great voice, does his mojo dance looking like the shamanic late period Jim Morrisson with Lakota hair and a warrior combativeness. He harangues the audience and still believes in rock n roll as a platform for something, anything, and gives off an aura of haughty madness like the canyon of great old school rock stars used to do.
They end the set with that celebratory 'She Sells Sanctuary' and a tough and pungent workout of 'Love Removal Machine' before returning to encore with an enthralling 'Spiritwalker' which transports the whole room back to those cider and black days of goth clubs before finally ending with a brisk yet thrilling version of the Doors 'Break On Through' which is both a celebration of the spirit of Jim Morrisson and V sign to the critics of Astbury filling in for the late Mr Mojo Rising on the reconfigured Doors tours.
The Cult may not sell millions of records any more they but they are still striving and still have that scent of danger about.
The bottom line is a great rock n roll show with the band wondering whether they are a call to arms or just a great band. Does rock n roll even represent revolution any more? Does it it mean anything? Are the band calling for revolution or are they in love with the scent of danger and the life affirming rush of the human spirit. Maybe rock n roll in the hands of the Cult is still the most primal of all musics- with it's whiff of sex, danger, death and madness it's an instinctive fry for freedom that hits raw nerve worldwide.