The Cure’s Robert Smith performs at Agganis Arena on Thursday.
The English alt-rock pioneer clearly was having a ball in the Cure’s first concert here in eight years at Boston University’s hockey rink. Smith, 57, even waxed of the nostalgia of celebrating his 21st birthday when the band first played this town in 1980– just down the street at Allston’s tiny, short-lived club the Underground – and launched into “M,” a rare nugget from those days.“When I see you, kitten, as a cat,” Robert Smith sang in “High” during one of four rounds of encores that the Cure played at the Agganis Arena on Thursday, uncorking a resonant “Yeow!” with a playful facial contortion before he added, “As smitten as that.”
Plenty has changed over the years, including the other band members and the Cure’s burgeoning popularity, now sustained, with generations who relate to Smith’s mopey, introverted songcraft, evidenced by Thursday’s sold-out arena (and three more full houses at New York’s Madison Square Garden this weekend).
Actually, the opening stretch of Thursday’s near-three-hour concert came off as fairly mopey in a muddy sound mix didn’t keep the Cure’s melancholy, textural songs from blurring together, down to Smith’s vocals. Several songs in, “Pictures of You” burst out with Smith’s romantic emoting over its deep, cyclical groove, while “Fascination Street” (another track from 1989 watershed Disintegration) grew more animated, with guitarist Reeves Gabrels slashing at his guitar with humming sustain.
Thursday was like a homecoming for Gabrels, a fixture on the Boston rock scene during the Cure’s heyday before he became a guitar virtuoso with David Bowie (he still sits in with Club d’elf at the Lizard Lounge). But in his first Boston show as a five-year member of the Cure, the Nashville-based guitarist had a lot less to do within the group’s minimalist fabric, mostly chipping in textures along with a few solos. His best guitar sparks came in set-closer “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” while fans flashed their palms when Smith sang “Put your hands in the sky.”
This nonetheless proved one of the Cure’s better lineups. Drummer Jason Cooper kept tribal beats punchy and precise while keyboardist Roger O’Donnell fleshed out melodies – and jumped at his synth with a smile in “Just Like Heaven.” Yet musically, the standout wasn’t even Smith or Gabrels, but longtime MVP bassist Simon Gallup, who lent sinewy, melodic ballast to practically every song and roamed the stage most freely, stepping onto a stage-front sound monitor.
Smith still remained the center of attention, in great voice and aided by an improving sound mix as the night evolved. The shy frontman in teased hair and makeup truly came alive during encore waves of deep cuts and cheery hits. He dug into edgy riffs with Gallup as green lights bathed both the band and crowd during “A Forest” while spooky trees flashed on a screen like horror film “The Blair Witch Project.” And Smith dispensed with his guitar to grab the mic for a delirious final run through “Let’s Go to Bed,” “Close to Me” (waving his hands like a hula dancer) and “Why Can’t I Be You” before a night-capping “Boys Don’t Cry.” Earlier, the group also played a dense, shadowy new song, “It Can Never Be the Same,” raising hopes that the Cure will record again to break a studio drought.
The Cure may not be known for its marathon shows in quite the same way as Bruce Springsteen is, but Smith’s learned a lot since the Underground and his savvy and enthusiasm bubbled over by the end of Thursday’s landmark return.