Live Review: Echo & The Bunnymen

at the Roundhouse, London, 15th October 2009

by Guy Sangster Adams

Ian McCulloch ©Alex Hurst 2009

Ian McCulloch ©Alex Hurst 2009

As the dry ice that completely obscures the stage at the beginning of Echo & The Bunnymen’s set feathers out through the audience it is as though it makes manifest all the highly charged thoughts and emotions, memories and expectations of all those gathered. There is quite literally something in the air tonight, a very tangible sense of right time, right place. Touching shoulders, touching souls, sending involuntary shudders around the architectural majesty of the Roundhouse, weaving about the iron pillars, before swirling up to the domed roof. Where, up lit from the stage, it highlights the suspension of belief that has gripped the auditorium.

Is it a dream? It is still impossible to make out anyone on the stage, but the sound majestically echoing the building coalesces with the dry ice, reaching everywhere it reaches and further. It is surreal, as though one is hearing long cherished memories for the first time, whilst the heart sores the head is trying to compute whether it can be real. Did Echo & The Bunnymen always sound so phenomenally good? My confusion is furthered having read some very disparaging reviews of the new album, The Fountain, earlier in the day saying that Ian McCulloch’s voice is shot and that the middle-aged band are just going through the motions. It won’t be until later in the set that they play Bring on the Dancing Horses and McCulloch sings the line “shiver and say the words, of every lie you’ve heard,” but by then, indeed from the word go, they have resolutely trounced those criticisms.

Three songs in the dry ice has cleared to reveal that the iconic scene one’s mind’s eye has been imagining is real: McCulloch is centre stage, sunglasses and overcoat on, periodically clutching the stand and rolling his forehead over the microphone, like Jim Stark and his milk bottle; the loner played by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. He looks out, he looks back to drummer Nick Kilroe and keyboard player Jez Wing, he looks left to Gordy Goudie on guitar and Stephen Brannan on bass, but he never looks to his right,  where in splendid isolation stands Will Sergeant, who in turn plays head down, only looking up to change the succession of different guitars, whilst at the back of the stage a myriad of projections filmed by Sergeant play across the screen, from clouds, to religious statuary, to psychedelic oil patterns, harking back to The Roundhouse’s brief tenure as home to the UFO club in 1967.

Ian McCulloch & Will Sergeant ©Alex Hurst 2009

Ian McCulloch & Will Sergeant ©Alex Hurst 2009

The venue and all the references it is imbued with thoroughly suit Echo & the Bunnymen. “It’s great to be at The Roundhouse,” announces McCulloch, “The Doors played here!” before introducing their cover version of People Are Strange. The Doors’ Ray Manzarek played keyboards on The Bunnymen’s recording of the song for the film The Lost Boys, and has remained a fan, and the sweeping grandeur of McCulloch’s vocals, akin to Jim Morrison in his ability to mix rough edged rock with mirror finish croon, is in full force tonight.

Reporters of the demise of McCulloch’s voice should be here; if it’s shot, it’s shot through with power, drama, and emotional intensity and the ability to propel one out of oneself. Indeed, as the set draws to a close with a phenomenal rendition of Killing Moon, the first time he sings the line “Fate, up against your will”, “fate” rockets beautifully to the roof and spines tingle, the second time he sings it, the word again goes to the roof taking the whole auditorium with it, the third time we are through the roof running the rings round Saturn.

Twenty-five years after Killing Moon was first recorded, indeed 31 years after Echo & The Bunnymen first played, you might be forgiven for, as Michelle the girl next to me says, “expecting less, but this is more; how have they become more?!” She is spot on; to appropriate the line Morrison sang at the Roundhouse in 1968, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.” Cascading around McCulloch’s voice like a Catherine wheel, Sergeant’s innovative, highly influential, and much emulated guitar playing is equally on perfect form, ascending and transcending the space in the most beautiful, kaleidoscopic spirals and dazzling shimmers.

Ian McCulloch ©Alex Hurst 2009

Ian McCulloch ©Alex Hurst 2009

The furthest reaches of their back catalogue, Rescue and Villiers Terrace, are played with the panache, verve, and excitement more normally associated with showcasing new songs. Whilst the same adjectives equally fit the first single from The Fountain, Think I Need It Too, with which they encore, followed by an outstanding Nothing Lasts Forever segueing into Walk On The Wild Side, which McCulloch amusingly concludes with “take a walk on Merseyside!”

With the two concluding dates of this tour in Liverpool sold out – a third has just been added – the band’s home town clearly already knows what everyone at the Roundhouse discovered, from the fifteen year old girl with saucer eyes breathlessly clutching the set list to her chest in the foyer, to the fortysomethings excitedly asking for autographs outside, that in the grandest style Echo & The Bunnymen are both igniting the rites of passage of a new generation, whilst reconfiguring the formative years of previous generations. For whom, it is as though the band reclaimed our memories for an hour and a half before handing them back Collagen enhanced, Stardust encrusted, with an extra gloss of new inspirations, leaving as sweet a taste as the last track of the night, Lips like Sugar.

Kiss whoever you must to do so, but go see Echo & The Bunnymen on this tour!

Echo & The Bunnymen are currently playing dates in Canada and the USA, before returning to England in December to play Oxford, Newcastle, Leeds and Liverpool. For more details:

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