The Cult, Action Action, Niki Barr Band: Rams Head Live! Baltimore, MD 11/12/07

Surprises at a show are a mixed bag. Most often they’re of the unpleasant sort when the band you go to see doesn’t live up to your (often over-hyped) expectation. Every now and then though, there’s a good one. On Monday night at Rams Head Live, I got three of them.

The opening act was the local Niki Barr Band. Most small bands would play this opportunity safe. It seems so seldom that a local band throws caution to the wind and goes all out in the shadow of a headliner with the Cult’s stature. Surprise #1: Niki and company played their all too short set as though they were the main attraction. Their performance had that intangible strength that comes from confidence. It wasn’t the songs themselves so much as how they dug deep to play them. Their infectious energy didn’t go unnoticed: The next day, they were invited to join the tour for two more dates in Buffalo and Indianapolis.

Next up was New York’s Action Action and their angular neo-new wave. This is a fairly overloaded genre right now, but theirs is a better than average take on it. They didn’t get bogged down in the synth parts (even though each band member contributed his share of electronic accents) and had a particular knack for smoothing out the right edges at the right time with nice melodic riffs. That being said, their performance was safe and planned even to the extent that they took a Jagermeister break served by a pair of over-sexy young women. I know that’s the tour sponsor, but I didn’t go to the show for a commercial break and any inroads Action Action had made with me were largely undone at that point. As the set moved into the its final song, I was left feeling pretty empty. Good music just doesn’t amount to much live without at least a little heart.

Surprise #2: Instead of limping across the finish line as I was expecting at this point, Action Action instead lived up tho their name and then some. The song rose in manic intensity as it went on and the previously lackluster band exploded through their last minutes in front of us. I’m not sure what held them back during the rest of the set, but that final barrage made up for everything else (even the Jager commercial).

The Cult are one of those bands that I’ve always wanted to see, but just never have. Based on the strength of their last two albums, I had high expectations that they would not have lost much over the almost 20 years since their popularity peaked. The Cult delivered. After some minor sound adjustments, the Cult hit stride a few songs in. Their set focused on both the new album as well as their 80s peak, ignoring their 90s releases entirely (except for "The Witch" from the 1992 Cool World soundtrack). I fully expected them to be able to pull off the old tunes every bit as well as the new and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Ian Asbury’s voice was as powerful as ever as was his Jim Morrison impression. What’s amazing is that, as contrived as it seems when talking about it, the raw power and sexuality that Astbury exudes seems natural. Likewise, Billy Duffy’s mastery of every conceivable guitarist pose would seem like idotic rock star ego from just about anyone else, but Duffy turns it into a natural extension of his performance. There were no surprises in the songs themselves. The Cult was every bit as dark and mystical as their music has been at its best. "Edie (Ciao Baby)" and "She Sells Sanctuary," for instance, were every bit the surreal experiences I’d hoped they’d be.

Surprise #3: What I didn’t expect was how down to earth they were at the same time. Astbury engaged in enough genuine banter with the crowd to translate into a more fundamental connection than just a band on stage would ever allow. Between the regular set and the encore, they showed their video for "Tiger in the Sun" that showed the upheaval in Burma as the people struggle to free themselves from a repressive regime. I’m not fan of planned encores, but this was an impressive use the otherwise tired convention. Unfortunately, the poignant moment was largely lost on the Baltimore crowd who engaged in the typical chanting as if the band’s return to the stage wasn’t a forgone conclusion. The encore, "Holy Mountain" and the title track from their latest as well as the still-etched-in-our-brains "Love Removal Machine," was looser and more relaxed, but unleashed every bit as much power, providing a fitting finish to a set that moved over the crowd in waves of sonic magic. Their ability to be both otherworldly and populist, to use rock cliches without being cliched themselves and to have all power of their younger years shows that the Cult may just be a perfect rock band.

It was a night of surprises: a bold opener, a strong finish to a lackluster set and a human connection with a band of almost transcendental power. But one thing was not a surprise: The Cult still have it.

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