“It’s nice to be playing with Gretta again after all these years,” Cursive frontman Tim Kasher announced in a rare bit of onstage banter last night at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. He was, of course, referring to former band member Gretta Cohn, the cellist responsible for the sweeping dramatics that dominate the band’s seminal 2003 album, The Ugly Organ, which saw its reissue late last year and finds Cursive on a brief tour in support of it.
To the diehard fans, the return of Cohn is significant. To promote The Ugly Organ‘s re-release, a strings player has been accompanying the Omaha band on select dates, but the New York shows specifically heralded the return of the original cellist. (In addition to two sold-out Bowery shows, the group is also playing Saint Vitus in Greenpoint.) It was a bit of nostalgia as welcome as the songs themselves, as the set played heavily off The Ugly Organ but touched on the group’s full catalog.
In an age where bands mark anniversaries by playing albums in full, Cursive are opting for a different route. Kasher has openly stated that the songs take on a different form when played live, which may be why it made less sense to play The Ugly Organ from start to finish. Of course, album highlights such as “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand,” “Art Is Hard,” and “Butcher the Song” were the best received, the main band members (Kasher, bassist Matt Maginn, and guitarist/vocalist Ted Stevens) rounded out by Cohn, Patrick Newbery (keys, horns), and Cully Symington (drums).
The show also reinforced just how far the Saddle Creek band has come as seasoned professionals. The Cursive of today is a tight, well-oiled machine, only signified further by the snazzy dress shirts and ties they donned. That said, some former material has lost its luster — “The Martyr,” for example, the most powerful song off the 2000 breakup album Domestica, felt more like a chore than what it once was: a standout live number. Kasher, however, has mastered his yelping to full effect, adding nuance and emotion in places both predictable and unexpected.
Newer songs retained their oomph and sheen, thanks in part to the added brass section for songs like “Big Bang” and “Dorothy at Forty,” the latter of which was interrupted mid-song for an impromptu “Hunger Strike” between Kasher and an audience member who jumped onstage because he knew the words. (The duet concluded with a hug from Kasher.)
The most stirring moments occurred during the encore, a one-two punch of Organ highlights “Sierra” and the sprawling “Staying Alive.” Here were the Cursive fans of yore, moshing and belting heart-on-sleeve lyrics, the kind of Cursive-obsessed emo kids who remain Cursive-obsessed emo kids for life. It’s a testament to the band, how truly passionate and devoted its fans are. Should Cursive mark the next Organ anniversary with a performance in full, it’s safe to say fans are waiting with bated breath.
Cursive play the Bowery Ballroom March 11 and Saint Vitus March 12. Both shows are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.