Review: Echo & The Bunnymen

Forty years on, Echo & The Bunnymen are still rocking. Photograph: Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
4 Nov 2018 @ 4.45 pm
| News

I have to confess to being a Bunnymen superfan.

First seeing them at Eric’s in Liverpool in 1979, (gulp, nearly 40 years ago), I followed them for years, watching the band mature from their drum-machine days as a trio, to an epic chart act, then watching their demise and eventual return to form.

Echo & The Bunnymen
  • York Barbican
  • Oct 22

I also have them to thank for my career in photography (well, sort of).

These two shots were taken at their classic gig at Buxton in 1981 on a Kodak Instamatic and turned out to be my first commercial photographs – they arrived in the Bonusprint envelope, and I promptly started taking orders for copies from my school friends (pre-internet, that’s how we shared photos).

Since then it’s fair to say they’ve been on a long journey. Epic, critically acclaimed albums such as Heaven up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain yielded hits and not just commercial but critical acclaim. Then the inevitable split, and the even more inevitable reunion, although that took a while.

Classic songs

Only singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant remain of the original line-up on this tour, and on their latest album The Stars, The Oceans and the Moon they’re doing that thing that just smells of desperation – re-interpreting classic songs.

They’re classics for a reason and I was disappointed by the album – stripped back versions that didn’t seem to add anything to the originals, strings and drums that sounded programmed and lifeless, and Mac’s voice, once soaring, now just sore.

It’s with some trepidation then that I watch them take the stage at the Barbican tonight. Maybe the album’s put a few others off too – the Barbican’s only half-full, but those that are here look to be long-time fans too, and there’s plenty of Bunnymen T-shirts on show.

Photograph: Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions

Photograph: Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
As always, dry ice fills the stage, and before long, they’re into a full-on, albeit shortened version of Going Up from the first album, Crocodiles. The Bunnymen don’t suit a seated audience though and I’m surprised the stalls are left in place tonight.

It’s only when they go into Rescue that the first few brave souls stand up and start the dancing, and the band seem to relax a little.

McCulloch says, “Wow, what a city this place is” obviously impressed by their visit. “It is a city isn’t it?” he asks, but before he can get an answer they’re playing one of their biggest hits Never Stop.

It sounds great until it gets to the chorus, where Mac’s voice, hammered by years of smoking, drinking, dry ice, and who knows what else, just can’t reach the high notes. He sings a lower harmony instead which means the song loses all it’s power and melody.

There’s a gallant attempt at singing the main chorus from the guitarist, but he’s barely audible.

It doesn’t matter to the crowd though – by now there’s a large group of Dad dancers at the front, and although most of the Barbican are still seated, they’re certainly singing along.

Iconic riffs

Photograph: Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
Alongside Mac, guitarist Will Sergeant is as understated as ever – barely looking up except to change guitars after every song, he really shines tonight.

His simple, but iconic riffs seem to take centre stage now that Mac’s voice is consigned to a lower register, and as he works his way through a wonderful collection of classic guitars, the Bunnymen really hit their stride.

‘Zimbo’, pointlessly stripped of Pete De Freitas tribal drumming on the new album is played as it should be, with drums upfront, and when ‘Villers Terrace’ seamlessly transforms into Jean Genie, it really is like watching the Bunnymen of old.

Mac implores the crowd to get up for ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ and most oblige – by now he seems to be back on form, pushing his voice to the limits, and with ‘Seven Seas’, ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’ and ‘The Cutter’ all bringing the set to a close, it’s a great turnaround.

Photograph: Duncan Lomax / Ravage Productions
They leave to rapturous applause, only to return to play ‘The Killing Moon’ and ‘Lips Like Sugar’ by which time, most of the Barbican are on their feet and singing along.

They leave and return for a second encore, which I’m not sure anyone expected, not even the band, as they play ‘Ocean Rain’ which is beautiful as always but brings the mood down before we make our way home.

It was interesting to see that the stripped back ‘re-workings’ on the new album never made it into the set, the band choosing to play the songs more or less as they were originally recorded, but I for one, am glad they did.

Nothing Lasts Forever, but after 40 years of Echo and the Bunnymen they’re still going strong.