Cruel World Fest - Live in Pasadena (Cover Artwork)

Cruel World Fest

Live in Pasadena (2022)

live show

When Cruel World Fest was first announced back in early 2020, I said “wow, the lineup on this thing is solid enough that it’s not even gonna matter when Morrissey flakes.” That comment then jinxed the whole world into being canceled. After a postponement, a cancellation, a resurrection with a slightly different lineup, and almost a year wait between tickets going on sale in June 2021 and the fest weekend May 14, 2022, it definitely felt like this event might not actually happen. Add to that the fact that half this lineup read like a fantasy-booked time machine show for a kid who wasn’t born yet in the late 70s and early 80s, and consider that all the bands were playing in a single day, and that yearlong wait left plenty of time for scrutiny to make Cruel World go from something to be hugely excited about to an exercise in tempered expectations.

For the record, here’s a list of every act that was billed:

Morrissey, Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, Blondie, Devo, The Psychedelic Furs, Violent Femmes, The Church, The English Beat, Public Image Ltd, The Damned, Blaqk Audio, TR/ST, Cold Cave, (Jay Aston’s) Gene Loves Jezebel, Berlin, Missing Persons, London After Midnight, Drab Majesty, 45 Grave, Christian Death, The Meteors, Black Marble, Sextile, Soft Kill, Automatic, The KVB

The fest was expanded to two days, but this was only after tickets sold quickly for the first day, and the full lineup played both days, spread across three stages. (Tickets for each day were completely separate.) There were a huge number of food options, and even a pop-up record store with inventory specifically stocked for the event. Knowing all that, we decided it would be best to take a planned-but-nimble approach to our day at Cruel World, and that’s how the rest of this review’s gonna go too.

The first notable thing to mention was that Echo & the Bunnymen canceled due to visa issues. This was announced just a few days before the show happened. I don’t know if the timing would have allowed for a replacement act of comparable size, and there were still more than enough bands to fill out the day, but the short notice way this was handled still feels like a significant negative mark for fans who had made travel plans primarily to see them.

We parked the car and got out at a sunny southern California golf course in 2022, and not the Batcave in 1983 London. This is probably obvious, but I just wanted to give you a reminder in case your goth/new wave lizard brain spent three seconds looking at the lineup and skipped everything else I’ve said so far.

When we got inside the gates, The Meteors were just starting their set on the first stage that we encountered. I’m not particularly familiar with their recorded catalog, but having been aware of them for a long time as pioneers of the psychobilly sound and style, I was surprised to see that they were using a standard bass rather than an upright one. The stage they were playing was relatively smaller than the other two, and was suited well for the more punk-leaning acts of the day. (Wish The Damned had played on it, but we’ll get to them in a bit.)

We thought it might be best to check out the merch before the fest filled up as the day went on, but even getting there within an hour of start time, we were too late for this idea. Merch was set up in such a way that all the artists shared a single very long table/window/booth area, which meant that anyone who wanted to buy (or even get a good look at anything that wasn’t close to the ends of the table) had to wait in a single very long winding line/queue/sunburn area. We later found out that there was a restricted-to-VIP ticket holders merch area elsewhere, with presumably shorter lines, but there had to have been a better way for the organizers to handle this than having every person who wanted to buy anything from any artist effectively wait in line with every single other person who wanted to buy anything from any artist.

At the end of the venue opposite where the Meteors were playing, we caught a bit of Los Angeles post-punkers Automatic playing on the largest of the three stages. Lola Dompé (daughter of Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins) plays drums for this band, but I had completely forgotten that fact while watching them. I recognized a few songs from their 2019 debut album Signal, and they also played a few from their upcoming follow-up Excess. Sextile followed on the same stage, and although they’ve been around longer than Automatic, they were still one of the relatively newer bands playing that day. I saw this band once at a small show in 2018 and liked them well enough, but their new singles “Modern Weekend” and “Contortion” were definitely the standouts in this set for me. I group these two bands together because they both deserve credit for holding it down on a huge stage early in the day at a big fest.

We walked back to the small stage to catch 45 Grave. Vocalist Dinah Cancer is the only current member from the band’s early 80s heyday, but she’s been leading the present incarnation of the group for longer than the original lineup was active. They made good use of their 30 minutes with an energetic set that included deathrock staples “Partytime”, “Evil” and “Black Cross”.

We made our first trip to the medium-sized stage as soon as 45 Grave finished, and realized that sometime between Wednesday (when the version of the schedule I was looking at was from) and Saturday (when the fest was occurring), Cold Cave had been moved to a different stage and a slightly earlier time. Annoying since they were definitely a band I wanted to see, but I guess my fault for not re-checking the schedule day of show? Their slot had been switched with London After Midnight. Although I never made much of an effort to get into the LA goth/darkwave band, they did open with “Your Best Nightmare”, which made me think of a Halloween mix that a friend included the song on in 2001 or 2002. Great mix, that. Still got it around somewhere.

Heard Missing Persons playing their 1982 hit “Walking in LA” from the small stage while making our way to the medium stage for half-of-AFI electronic project Blaqk Audio. Like 45 Grave, Blaqk Audio played a very satisfying set in the short time they had. With songwriter/producer Jade Puget mostly confined behind a barrier of laptops and synths, frontman Davey Havok had enough presence to make the stage not feel empty, and jumped down to engage the crowd a couple times as well. Not bad for a guy in a suit on a 90 degree day.

After Blaqk Audio, we moved into view of the large stage to see Public Image Ltd. open with a trio of songs I recognized as a casual fan who only owns their first album: “Public Image”, “This Is Not a Love Song”, and “Death Disco”. In addition to mainstay John Lydon, their lineup also included single-album Damned member Lu Edmonds on guitar. (He played on 1977’s Music For Pleasure, the one that gets overshadowed by their debut and Machine Gun Etiquette on either side of it.)

That piece of trivia felt interesting enough to mention since hiking back to the medium stage for The Damned was the reason I ducked out of PiL’s set early. This trip to the US saw alternative rock journeyman Troy Van Leeuwen filling in for guitarist Captain Sensible (second-most frequent member of the Damned, after the ever-present vocals of Dave Vanian). TVL was an enthusiastic and worthy substitute, but unfortunately the second half of the Damned’s set was plagued by sound issues. It seemed like the monitors went out at least once, and I suspect they cut the performance a bit short since the usual hits “Neat Neat Neat” and “Smash It Up” were not played.

Back on the large stage, Devo were great. Having just seen them less than a year ago at Punk Rock Bowling, I’d say they have their act nailed down pretty well, and are a band you should make a point to see while they’re still active. However, like the Damned, their set felt like it finished abruptly since it was missing “Freedom of Choice”, which had closed it out at PRB.

I could hear the Psychedelic Furs playing “Love My Way” from the medium stage while we went to check out the record pop-up from LA store Record Safari. The sun was mostly down by this point, but walking around all day was catching up to us and taking a break to flip through some records seemed more appealing than trying to squeeze in part of another set before Bauhaus. The shop had a surprisingly well-curated collection of new and used LPs, both from bands who were playing that day and also many others in the same punk/new wave/goth/etc vein.

Scheduled for 8:15 on the large stage, Bauhaus was one of the few bands that got the advantage of playing after dark. By then, I was starting to feel a little burnt out and while it hadn’t been a bad day, the vibe had felt more like a day at an amusement park or something rather than the end-to-end incredible musical performances it might have been if time and space and temperature weren’t such cruel realities. My feelings totally changed as soon as Bauhaus started though, and they ended up being save-the-day fucking awesome. Their set started with the band playing “Double Dare”, with Peter Murphy somewhere offstage singing directly into a camera just in front of his face, with some sort of tarp or sheet or something behind him. That image displayed huge on the stage screens made it look like he was singing from inside a body bag. Murphy joined the rest of the band onstage, and they continued to find ways to be visually amazing throughout the set. (Look up a video of “Stigmata Martyr” from this show to see another great moment.) They had the full original band intact, sounded great, and absolutely stole the show. Aside from playing a shorter set at Cruel World, they were somehow even better than when I saw them headline the Palladium in 2019.

I could have left happy after Bauhaus, but the greatness of that set also provided us with a second wind, so we went over to see Blondie, already a few songs into closing out the night on the medium stage. Along with Debbie Harry, classic lineup drummer Clem Burke was present. (Although still a member, co-founder Chris Stein was not performing with the band due to a health issue.) Also of note, original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock was playing with them. The sound was kind of muffled where we were standing, but we also didn’t fight through what seemed like one of the biggest crowds of the day to look for a better spot. I was a little bummed to miss their banger version of the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone” (they played it early in the set), but as much as I love that song, it wouldn’t have been worth it to cut out early on Bauhaus.

The final act of the night was Morrissey on the large stage. I’ve always felt that Morrissey’s huge solo catalog is uneven, and his politics are sometimes troubling, but he can definitely still belt out the tunes and his band is solid. Rockabilly-flavored “The Loop” was a set highlight, and pulling out the Smiths deep cut “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” was a nice way to cap off the day.

Between “Fantasy-booked time machine show” (as I said above) and “Goth Fyre Festival” (as the most pessimistic social media users said in the days leading up to it), Cruel World Fest was really neither. It was a big outdoor festival, that paradoxically could have been more satisfying if it had fewer bands, even though I do like most of the bands who played (more than I even got a chance to see). Realistically though, how happy should a bunch of goths hanging out in the sun all day be? I’ll probably go if they do it again, assuming it’s got a lineup this potentially good again. Cruel World, indeed.