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Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Ocean Rain

Echo & The Bunnymen at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangSince the schedule for SxSW was announced way back in March, I had one particular showcase circled and immutable on my schedule – Echo & The Bunnymen at Rusty Spurs on the Saturday night. One of the perks of attending SxSW is the opportunity to see big bands in venues much smaller than they’d normally play, and though the Liverpool legends were playing some bigger shows during the festival, the opportunity to see them for the first time in a tiny Texan gay cowboy bar was too good to pass up. And while that show was fine, it was a mild disappointment relative to my tremendous expectations. I had somehow wanted an arena-scale show in a club-scale setting (even though Echo & The Bunnymen have never really achieved arena-scale success), and they delivered a good club-scale show. Classic songs for sure, but considering I heard that some of their larger shows during SxSW were epic, I had to think that maybe they were a band who played up – or down – to their environs.

From that point of view, it followed that this past Tuesday night’s show at the very proper Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto would be something special and the promise of an orchestrally-enhanced reading of the band’s highwater mark Ocean Rain all but clinched it. It had to be a fantastic show – it promised too much to not be, and considering the high ticket price, the 1000 or so folks in attendance would rightfully be expecting one. The show was divided into two sets, the first for “the hits” and the second for the Ocean Rain recital, and the former was largely as advertised, leaning heavily on their early material – their debut Crocodiles comprised a third of the set list – but also including highlights from the post-reunion records. Some might think that pulling two from their latest record The Fountain to be excessive, but the fact is that lead single “I Think I Need It Too” was one of the highlights, not least of all because it was written with lead Bunnyman Ian McCulloch’s reduced vocal range in mind.

Ah yes, the voice – let’s get that out of the way right now. PopMatters is correct when they suggest that Mac’s voice is a rough, gravelly shadow of the magnificent instrument it once was. He can’t hit those notes anymore, occasionally wheezes where once he bellowed and as such, some of those indelible melodies have been rejigged to accommodate the new reality – the chorus of “Bring On The Dancing Horses” now bows where once it soared. But the songs remain as potent as ever and Mac delivered them with a swagger and charisma that went a good way towards compensating for the years – and I mean that vocally, not physically. Echo & The Bunnymen live is a most stationary experience, with McCulloch’s repertoire of stage moves consisting of standing still at the mic, getting a drink of water and occasionally crouching down. But back to the voice – as I mentioned in the review of that show back in March, he still has reserves of that old power that he can tap into at key moments, as he did in the chorus of “The Cutter” and in doing so, by god, turned the clock back a quarter century for a few, brief shining moments.

The reading of Ocean Rain, however, was one sustained 40-minute shining moment. Supported by a 10-piece (I think) string section, Echo & The Bunnymen made a fine case for it as one of the best records of the ’80s and anyone hearing “Silver”, rendered as majestically as it was on this night, would have great difficulty coming up with an argument against it. It’s true that strings applied injudiciously can render songs cheesy or overly pompous, but here they were just perfect – if anything, they made me wish for more and wonder what these shows must have sounded like with full orchestras at the Royal Albert Hall or Radio City Music Hall. Performing in front of projected black and white images of the band in their youth, their crystal days, the proceedings had a lovely, elegiac tone and felt as much like a tribute from McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant to their former bandmates, the retired Les Pattinson and late Pete De Freitas. If there was any complaint, it was that the suite ran too short but the record clocks in at under 40 minutes – there’s not a lot that can be done about that, short of calling for an impromptu orchestra jam and no one wants that.

Though they could have justifiably called it a night after that – there’s no way to top the album’s title track as a finale – they still returned for a two-song encore, finally ending the almost two-hour show (including intermission) with “Lips Like Sugar”. Finally, this was the grand, epic Echo & The Bunnymen show I’d been hoping to see. If you get the chance to see them, choose the grandest venue possible and if they promise to bring the strings, don’t dare miss it.

The Toronto Sun, Chartattack, Exclaim and eye have reviews of the show while The National Post considers the trend of bands performing classic albums in their entirety, using Echo & The Bunnymen as a case study. You can also grab a track from the new record over at RCRDLBL, in addition to the one linked below.

And yes, the photos from the show are nigh pointless – Mac hates light, and the folly of it all was compounded by having to shoot from the back of the theatre. But that’s okay, I got him good back in Austin to check those out if you want to see how well he’s aged.

Photos: Echo & The Bunnymen @ The Queen Elizabeth Theatre – October 20, 2009
MP3: Echo & The Bunnymen – “I Think I Need It Too”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “The Killing Moon”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “Bedbugs & Ballyhoo”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “The Cutter”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “The Game”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “Seven Seas”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “Bring On The Dancing Horses”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “In The Margins”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “It’s Alright”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “Back Of Love”
Video: Echo & The Bunnymen – “Lips Like Sugar”
MySpace: Echo & The Bunnymen

Out digitally this month in line with the UK release, Editors’ new one In This Light & On This Evening will get a proper physical North American release on January 19 and will yet-to-be-specified bonus material not available on the UK release. This news comes the day my import of the UK release arrives, of course.

altsounds talks to Charlotte Hatherley about her new record New Worlds. Stereogum also has a new song from the record available to newsletter subscribers and a brief chat with Charlotte about the tune.

The Quietus has an interview with Florence Welch of Florence & The Machine and walks away unimpressed. Massive commenting ensues. Florence plays the Mod Club on November 2.

Paste catches up with Alasdair Maclean of The Clientele.

The Daily Growl solicits a list of seven songs from Rose Elinor Dougall.

Spinner talks to The Horrors.

eMusic and Interview have features on El Perro Del Mar, who’s just released a new video from her latest album Love Is Not Pop. She opens for Peter Bjorn & John at the Phoenix on November 11.

Video: El Perro Del Mar – “Change Of Heart”

Chartattack, The Detroit News, Metro and NOW chat with The Raveonettes. They’re at the Phoenix tonight.

HeroHill gets five funky stories from Iceland’s Sprengjuhollin, who have two dates in Toronto this weekend – Saturday night at the Rivoli and Sunday at Rancho Relaxo.

By : Frank Yang at 8:26 am
Category: Concert Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

RSS Feed for this post6 Responses.
  1. Bruce says:

    I too thoroughly enjoyed Echo. Having seen them in ’05, I had no illusions about what to expect from the band, both sonically and performance-wise, so my expectations were exceeded. Would have liked a little more Will Sargeant in the mix, but, small complaint. Almost thought Mac’s apology for his voice was merely to set up the surprise when he pulled out the stops, and as you said, those moments (“The Cutter”!) were impressive, especially the “screaming from beneath the waves” finale to Ocean Rain. A guy behind me applauded that moment alone.

    The (“humble”) orchestra really made it special, and the slide show was great — even if it seemed the Bunnymen were indulging in a little self-mythmaking — until its untimely end (thanks OSX for choosing that particular moment to request a Software Update!) I had predicted a separate set of hits, and was happy to see it come true. Great selection, with “A Promise” being the one I missed most, but understandable that its sustained series of high notes might have been a problem for The Voice. Only other wish — “Never Stop” with the strings, but, just not in the cards.

    I guess no photo accreditation was granted, but good work under the circumstances. At least you were central. I notice no shots of the ghoul playing guitar stage right — good call!

  2. Frank Yang says:

    hey bruce – those shots WERE with accreditation. we had to shoot from the back, and even with my longest lens there wasn’t much to work with – especially with them in pretty much darkness for the first three songs (or the whole show, really). But it was what it was and it was a great show.

  3. Bruce says:

    That’s a bit harsh. I’m sure some people were getting away with some shooting up front, once a few dancers in the aisles provided cover. Maybe not worth the risk of getting thrown out, though. As for the cloak of darkness — I guess the whole Dorian Grey-without-the-painting thing would make one a bit camera-shy. ; )

  4. Frank Yang says:

    it’s pretty standard – you get to bring the nice toys but have to abide by the rules. And c’mon, Mac has aged alright. Will, on the other hand…

  5. Bruce says:

    Yeah, you’re right about the graceful aging. Mac looks good for a man of his age, but not everyone gets that kind of a head start. And Will has maintained the face-covering hairstyle over the years for a reason (but truthfully, rendered completely immaterial by the guitar godhood).

  6. Scott says:

    Will was never the “looker” that Mac was… but his talent hasn’t dimmed with age the way some of Mac’s gifts have.

    The show was excellent – I just wish they’d rehearsed a few Ocean Rain b-sides with the orchestra (they did Angels And Devils on the last tour) – would have made a nice encore here.

    Solid show – they’re a band that don’t surprise all that often, but don’t really disappoint either.