Live: Cults Shimmy Into The Spotlight At Webster Hall


Cults w/Delicate Steve, Dirty Fences
Webster Hall
Thursday, January 19

Better than: Surfing the Hype Machine.

Cults might be one of those bands that seemed to be birthed entirely on the Internet, but give them some credit: Even now, some 18 months after launching their debut EP on Bandcamp, there isn’t much known about them, no gleeful delving into their backstory that other up-from-YouTube stars have suffered through, few extended arguments about their “authenticity.”

Perhaps it’s because even after all these months, lead singer Madeline Follin remains a bit of an enigma, shrouding herself in long, wavy hair and cutting off declarations of love from the audience with a giggle or a head-toss. Or maybe it’s because Cults’ music is an amoprhous sort of “retro,” just reverb-drenched enough to straddle the space between Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the shoegazing ’80s while also grabbing elements from C86 (blurted, wavering guitar chords), Portishead’s live show (Follin’s face, as close up as possible, projected over synchronized swimmers and bicycling apes), and that part of the 1980s where so many entertainment products (Peggy Sue Got Married, Back To The Future, An Innocent Man-era Billy Joel) fetishized the “innocence” of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Oh, and there was a Leonard Cohen cover, too, although not the one trotted out by so many other people. (They performed a stormy bedroom-goth version of “Everybody Knows” instead.)

Cults’ set was brief—13 songs—but spirited, with minimal stage banter and, within the songs themselves, lots of odd twists and turns. Sometimes the proceedings would just stop; other times the band would veer into bridges that should have seemed grafted on, but instead made complete sense when placed inside their left-field presentation of pop tropes. Follin made it known that she could indeed belt when she wanted to, getting downright torchy at times, although her chirpy thank-yous to the audience between songs presented a stark contrast to her drawing-from-within dramatic persona. It was an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so, and the deceptively simple glockenspiel intro to the band’s breakthrough hit “Go Outside” (#39 on Pazz & Jop, and does it remind anyone else of Britney’s “I Wanna Go”?) was unsurprisingly the night’s most indelible moment.

The hotly tipped Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs, who guests with the group on the highly bloggable remix of “Bad Things,” came out for what Follin claimed was a rare encore; before launching into the track he led a chant of “fuck police,” which the crowd ate up in a way that reminded me uneasily of college, when kids sitting comfortably in privilege’s lap would adopt similar rhetoric in the name of rebellion without having to deal with all those nasty societal ills that sparked the conflict in the first place. The reworked “Things” was fine enough (and highly bloggable; I saw the first Brooklyn Vegan tweet touting video while I was in the cab leaving Webster Hall); Gibbs is a skilled MC and his interplay with Follin was cute, with the two of them hugging often. Still, it would have been more apt had that moment come earlier, and for Follin and her whipsawing locks to be the night’s last memory; even in shadow, she’s a star, and should treat herself accordingly.

Preceding Cults was the New Jersey solo-act-turned-band Delicate Steve, and their music was somewhat flummoxing: Imagine the end result of feeding a kid a diet of later Talking Heads and Phish cassettes, leavened by a single copy of Joe Satriani’s Surfing With The Alien. The music was bright and backbeatless, its vague air of “world” influence causing it to float at a level filled with people grinning widely and telling each other that It Was All Good; lead guitarist Steve Marion used his guitar the way frontmen would use their voices, supplying lead melodies and the occasional sass-back at his bandmates. I was left with many questions, chief among them being, “If Satriani was 25 instead of 55 and more shaggily coiffed, would he be up onstage right now?”

Critical bias: Cults’ up-from-nowhere origin myth got the side-eye from me when I first got wind of it.

Overheard: “PLAY ‘GO OUTSIDE’!!”—screamy bros in the front row after the seventh song. Uh, have you been to a concert before?

Random notebook dump: Is the incense-as-bathroom-air-freshener idea a new thing at Webster Hall? Because it works pretty well.