By his own admission, lead singer Ian Astbury isn’t one for nostalgia—which is ironic given that everything about his band, The Cult, is a hard-rock throwback. When big-hair metal bands were stripping rock of its soul in the late 1980s, Astbury and lead guitarist Billy Duffy were charting a pulse-pounding, post-punk path that would resonate with the grunge acts that reignited the genre in the ’90s. The British rockers did it with a distinct yet old-school sound and stage presence that felt equal parts dirty, dangerous and mystic.
It was the kind of act that, back in the heyday of venues like Whisky a Go Go, could turn intimate clubs into legend-making rock cathedrals.
The overflow crowd at Revolution Live on Tuesday night no doubt expected that kind of magic from The Cult, which hit Fort Lauderdale as part of its “Electric 13” tour, a reference to the 1987 album produced by Rick Rubin that the band is playing during its opening set. “Electric,” the third and arguably most pivotal album in The Cult canon, signaled an end to the band’s Goth overtures and underground following, turning it into an unbridled force of rock nature that could headline arenas.
Electric, however, did not describe the atmosphere at Revolution. More like agitated, especially early on. For starters, attendance came dangerously close to breaking whatever fire marshal codes exist at the club. Clear sight lines, for those who weren’t near the stage or who didn’t stand 6 foot 3 or taller, were 40-60 propositions. Incidental contact meanwhile, was off the charts; people were being stepped on, shouted at, spilled on, elbowed and “accidentally” groped—and that was just in the line to the bathroom.
On stage, the New York psychedelic trio White Hills contributed to the restlessness with an overindulgent opening set of long-form “spacerock” jams that had one middle-aged audience member clamoring for Jamie Farr to sound the gong. Instead of offering a tight 40 minutes and exiting stage right, the Hills—fronted by David W., whose silver face paint recalls a depressed Oakland Raiders fan more than a glam rocker—bled every possible note out of its extended-play offerings; the set clocked in at more than an hour.
By the time Astbury emerged from the shadows in his trademark sunglasses—and wearing a fur-lined jacket, perfect for a hot August night in South Florida, right?—it was well past 10 p.m. The crowd—sweaty, surly, fueled by a variety of intoxicants, and tired of dusting body parts for prints—never seemed entirely in sync with what was happening on stage.
Astbury, either sensing this or in a pissy mood of his own (his infamous “creative” fallouts with Duffy rank right up there in rock history alongside Jagger and Richards, Axl Rose and Slash, et al.), started calling out people early for shooting videos on their phones. “It’s distracting,” he said. “Plus, don’t you know they look like shit?”
Later in the evening, as the band tore through some of its greatest hits during the second set, things got personal. Astbury went off on someone near the front of the stage who was texting one minute and, apparently, shouting at the singer the next. In between songs, Astbury took large swigs from his water bottle and spit it at the person in question. Not once, not twice, but three times.
“You’re ignorant—and you’re rude,” Astbury shouted into the mic. “I call it like I see it ... If you can’t handle it, go home. This is a Cult concert!”
As messy as the evening was at times, at least it was a hot mess. Thirty years into a career that has seen its share of breakups and reunions, as well as some infamous record label battles, The Cult can still crush it.
Hearing the “Electric” cuts live—including “Wild Flower,” “Aphrodisiac Jacket” and “Love Removal Machine”—it’s easy to see why Duffy has such serious street cred in the guitar community. His aggressive, distinctive riffs continue to be the musical backbone of the group’s occasionally fragile existence.
Despite the audience distractions, Duffy brought his A-game (while keeping his distance on the far left of the stage, away from Astbury). His longtime collaborator, meanwhile, certainly had his moments. Astbury doesn’t just sing Cult songs, he commands them in a style that may channel a little Jim Morrison but, in the end, is as forceful and as original as it gets.
Astbury, who actually fronted a band with the remaining members of The Doors in 2002, raised the roof with hits “Rain,” “Sweet Soul Sister,” “She Sells Sactuary,” and encores “Spiritwalker” and “Sun King.”
It should have come as no surprise that an evening with The Cult would be a roller-coaster ride. But in the end, even Astbury could see past the twists and turns.
“It’s a privilege for us to play for you,” Astbury said a few songs after his spit-take altercation. It was a seemingly sincere admission from someone who knows all too well that rock isn’t always pretty.