First Night: The Cure, NME Big Gig, The O2 Arena, London

3.00

Rock muscle keeps Smith's lost soul on the road

The NME gave The Cure their "God-like Genius" Award this week. If the band's Robert Smith really was God, he could hardly need it less. The Cure are among a tiny number of UK bands since punk to maintain a global mass cult far beyond fashion. Anchored by the gravity of albums such as Disintegration (1989) – intended as the "most desolate" record ever – and kept afloat by feather-light, sexy singles such as "The Lovecats", nothing, it seems, can sink them.

Smith himself has Morrissey's existential angst, meanwhile. But it is softened by crow's-nest hair and a mask of make-up which makes him cartoonishly ageless, and reassuringly permanent: gloom's reigning crown prince.

Franz Ferdinand, second on this post-NME Awards bill, are struggling for such longevity. Third album Tonight, heavily featured here, has seen them try to stretch their tight post-punk pop template. The title song's mid-song breakdown, a la early Pink Floyd, and moments of indulgent noise as Franz thrash around the stage, show them clawing their way towards something new. Their Glasgow art-school roots gratifyingly mean more to them than pop success. But much more heedless daring is needed, if they're to survive.

Smith soon wanders on, wearing the sort of anonymous baggy clothes you can imagine him in if he'd never left the Sussex suburbs of his youth. He remains boyish, not blunted by fame. The opening chords of "From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea" retain the gloomy innocence of The Cure's own beginnings, too. But they have gained arena rock muscle, which has let them conquer the US, where more overtly anthemic peers such as Echo & the Bunnymen failed. The NME got keen young UK indie acts such as British Sea Power to cover The Cure for a tribute CD last week. But The Cure are nearer to thundering US nu-metal bands than such fey local types, these days.

The churning, hard rock clatter of the band's rhythm section is, though, belied by the coquettish spark in Smith's mascara-smeared eyes, and his private joy in picking at his guitar. The impression is of a man put at odds with his tortured songs, by the pleasure of playing them.

Though Smith sometimes feels the alienation and angst which has won him so many lost souls as fans, he has declared himself incapable of true despair, or suicide. Sometimes, far from the dark Goth lord of legend,he looks like a dizzy, dumbly happy brunette tonight. "I love, I love," he keeps moaning like a mantra, at the end of one song. The chiming, soaring pop of "Without You" confirms his band truly do offer a cure, not just the disease.

Thirty years in, The Cure are a tough tribe to join for the uninitiated. The pop highs are rare these days, amid the clanging heaviness and emotional murk. Smith's blank indifference to compromise is what has let his band survive so long. If that keeps the rest of the world out, you suspect that's the way he wants it.

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