Recap/Photos: 1980s Fans Brave the Heat for Cruel World Festival in Pasadena to See Blondie, Devo, Morrissey, Bauhaus and Many More

George A. PaulCategories:Latest News

Rock Cellar Magazine

Debbie Harry of Blondie was absolutely thrilled to be onstage during this past Saturday, May 14’s sold-out Cruel World Festival in Southern California.

“You have no idea how good it feels to be here,” enthused the new wave icon, as the band did an edgier take on its 1980 reggae hit “The Tide is High.” 

Blondie at Cruel World Festival (Courtesy Cruel World and Coen Rees)

Blondie at Cruel World Festival (Courtesy Cruel World and Coen Rees)

Held at Brookside Golf Club in Pasadena next to the Rose Bowl, the inaugural event (which repeated Sunday) finally took place after being postponed and undergoing a venue change due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than two dozen acts performed on three stages during the 11-hour concert. Top-lined by Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie and Devo, Cruel World was among SoCal’s strongest retro alternative rock lineups since the 2000s, when KROQ/106.7 FM hosted annual Inland Invasion extravaganzas near San Bernardino. 

The sweltering, mid-90s heat prompted tons of people to use parasols. Devo t-shirts led the pack among concertgoers’ attire. Numerous black clad goths in leather, chains and other metal accoutrements could revel in seeing Bauhaus, The Damned, Cold Cave, Christian Death, and others. Interestingly, two former Sex Pistols played Cruel World, albeit separately: John Lydon with Public Image Limited and Glen Matlock with Blondie.

Below are some highlights from the afternoon and evening’s festivities.

Morrissey at Cruel World Fest (Courtesy of Cruel World and Pooneh Ghana)

Morrissey at Cruel World Fest (Courtesy of Cruel World and Pooneh Ghana)

Looking resplendent in a tuxedo, Morrissey emerged singing a line from Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” before leading into a punchy “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful,” a silhouetted figure making a trigger-pulling gesture displaying on the backdrop. The British vocalist was in fine form throughout his 65-minute set.

Alain Whyte — back in the touring band after a long absence — did especially memorable guitar work on the tension-filled “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” and a rockabilly-tinged “The Loop.” 

Other standouts included the gorgeous “Alma Matters” and Moz’s first two solo hits, “Everyday is Like Sunday” and “Suedehead,” where fans still in attendance sang along loudly. Morrissey’s followers since the Eighties were also treated to enthralling versions of The Smiths’ “Never Had No One Ever,” “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” and “Half a Person.” 

Morrissey often uses photos of actors, actresses and musicians from the 1950s-70s during his concerts. Among the cavalcade this time was David Johansen and the New York Dolls (unfortunately passed over again for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year). 

Bauhaus is still masterful at creating the right atmosphere. The pioneering goth rock group was completely riveting — right from the moment Murphy’s face was shown in tight black and white focus on the big screens amid opener “Double Dare.” The British quartet’s stinging musical churn made it even more menacing. 

Keeping the intensity level high, Daniel Ash effortlessly peeled off shards of guitar and Kevin Haskins relentlessly pounded militant beats during “In the Flat Field,” Murphy’s frequent messiah poses providing the perfect dramatic effect. After more gritty wailing on “God in an Alcove,” the singer slowly lowered a small crown atop his head. “She’s in Parties” got a rousing response, especially when Murphy played melodica and Ash added swirling sounds. It was a set highlight, along with the band’s signature song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (nine minutes of pure gloom) and the selections where Ash’s acoustic guitar playing (“Silent Hedges; the flamenco hints in “The Passion of Lovers”) took the mood in a different direction.

Devo at Cruel World Fest (Courtesy of Cruel World and Pooneh Ghana)

Devo at Cruel World Fest (Courtesy of Cruel World and Pooneh Ghana)

Following a short satirical clip and career montage, Devo arrived onstage to the hyper descending synth lines of “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man),” from underrated 2010 album Something for Everybody. Gerald Casale jogged in place as he did backing vocals. Although front man Mark Mothersbaugh has been less than enthusiastic about continued touring lately, the guys didn’t lack in the energy department. They were firing on all cylinders musically and visually (it was hard to take your eyes off the animation and archival footage). 

Sporting trademark energy domes, the musicians really drove the crowd into a frenzy during a strong “Girl U Want” and “Whip It.” A PSA about Earth allowed time to change into yellow hazmat suits for popular covers of “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)” and “Secret Agent Man” (sung by guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh). Even if you’ve already seen Mark rip parts of his bandmates’ suits off and the synchronized moves on “Uncontrollable Urge,” it never gets old. 

Toward the end of the set, Casale prefaced the mechanical “Jocko Homo” by asking the audience if they finally believed the theory of devolution that Devo espoused in the 1970s was real, making reference to the machinations of Putin and the Supreme Court, plus various “tyrants and scumbags” around the world. “So much for freedom of choice,” he scoffed. Then Devo put on monkey masks and kneepads for the dizzying-to-frantic “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA.”

Clad in an oversized sky blue and pink plaid suit, John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. was hard to miss, his caterwauling difficult to ignore. The screens magnified the singer’s wide range of facial expressions. Beginning with the careening “Public Image,” the band’s abrasive set included a fierce “This is Not a Love Song,” where Lydon’s harsh enunciation verged on the German language. Always the provocateur, when his lyric sheets almost fell off a stand he quipped, “The wind is blowing, look out Orange County,” in relation to the Laguna Niguel wildfire. The careening “Death Disco” and “Rise” were other highlights.

Before exiting, Lydon just had to get a dig into society at large and said, “I’ll show you what woke is. I’m awake and alive. How about that?” 

Blondie, anchored by ace drummer Clem Burke, whose manic playing style is a marvel to witness, often put a heavier rock sheen on new wave classics like “Atomic,” “Call Me,” “Rapture” and “Dreaming.” When the band started “Long Time,” Harry’s fine collaboration with Blood Orange from 2017’s Pollinator, some people seated on the grass immediately stood. Either they recognized the dance club hit — or its similarity to “Heart of Glass” (which came later). 

Violent Femmes sure had fun onstage. Lead singer Gordon Gano was all smiles while singing the jaunty, sax-driven rave up “I Held Her in My Arms” and even the disturbing pleas of “Gimme the Car.” He explained the shorter version was missing its freakout section due to time constraints. Bassist Brian Ritchie handled lead vocals on punkish “Dance MF Dance” and xylophone for “Gone Daddy Gone.” Kevin Hearn from Barenaked Ladies guested on accordion for two songs, but a poor sound mix left him barely discernable. 

Also battling muffled sound on the same stage was legendary punk rock band The Damned. Still, animated keyboardist Monty Oxymoron managed to cut through the mire. Leader Dave Vanian, wearing his usual black gloves and singing with a valve microphone, paced the stage. Troy Van Leeuwen from Queens of the Stone Age subbed for Captain Sensible (unable to travel to America due to visa issues) and held his own on guitar, particularly on the haunting “Street of Dreams” and the band’s popular covers of “Alone (Again Or)” and “Eloise.” Vanian described the latter as going “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Cruel World Festival (Courtesy of Cruel World/White Owl Drone)

Cruel World Festival (Courtesy of Cruel World/White Owl Drone)

The Church provided the perfect soundtrack for lazing around on the grass. Chiming guitar-driven alt-rock radio hits like “Metropolis” and “Reptile” sounded sublime as ever and went down well. Then leader Steve Kilbey humorously introduced an understated version of biggest hit “Under the Milky Way” by explaining people probably would recognize it from television, movies or when “you fill up at the petrol pump.” 

Psychedelic Furs got a rapturous response during “Love My Way” and “The Ghost in You.” The extended version of “Heartbreak Beat” featured a cool tandem solo duel between saxophonist Mars Williams and guitarist Rich Good. Later, leader Richard Butler sang the always relevant “President Gas” (key lyric: “It’s sick/The price of medicine”) with raspy vigor. 

Dave Wakeling and his seven-piece English Beat brought the party atmosphere with their classic ska and pop tunes. Current toaster Antonee First Class pointed out that everything played would be live and really amped up the crowd. Wakeling got backing vocal support from the entire band, proving beneficial on “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Save it for Later” and General Public’s “Tenderness.” After the set was over, he gave a nice salutation in reference to the pandemic: “I’m glad we survived. If you lost any family or friends, our hearts go out to you.”   

Missing Persons, including bassist Prescott Niles from The Knack, drew a fairly large afternoon crowd that dutifully sang along to alt-rock radio hits like “Words,” “Walking in L.A.” and “Destination Unknown.” Singer Dale Bozzio constantly professed her love to fans, but the music didn’t make much of an impact. 

Davey Havok at Cruel World Festival (Photo Courtesy Cruel World and Coen Rees)

Davey Havok at Cruel World Festival (Photo Courtesy Cruel World and Coen Rees)

AFI band leader Davey Havok, on the bill with his side project Blaqk Audio, backed by a single keyboardist, more than made up for not having a full band behind him. The vocalist’s dramatic gestures and attempts to get closer to fans prompted loud squeals of delight from a gaggle of female fans up close to the stage. The vibrant synth pop and EDM-minded set was highlighted by “First to Love,” “Blue Cherry” and a passionately delivered “Cities of Night.” 

The Cruel World Festival was clearly well received by all in attendance, and it will be interesting to see what next year’s installment looks like.


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