Everytime I see Echo & the Bunnymen—and this dates back to the first time, in 1986—I tell myself, “Soak it in, cuz this’ll be the last time I see these guys.” Well, last Saturday was the third time in the last three years alone. But this was much different.
Of course the original line-up is long gone, but the main players—singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Seargant—are in the fold, while the roles of second guitarist, rhythm section and keyboardist have continually changed since the band’s re-emergence about a decade ago. Their new album, The Fountain (Ocean Rain), is due out this coming Tuesday, and the worry was that this quietly announced, industry-stuffed, tiny club gig was meant to be a warm-up run-through of just the new album. Nothing wrong with that, but you get my drift.
No need to worry. The two new songs they pulled out, “Forgotten Fields” and “I Think I Need It Too” were fine desirous swooners, as was one other Bunnymen mach II song, “Nothing Lasts Forever.” The rest of the near hour-long set was packed with classics. The band kind of drifted in with “Going Up,” but by it’s end, the drift turned into a heavy wind. “Rescue” was huge, punctuated by keyboardist Jez Wing’s ability to replicate those original synth string sounds—some of the only nauseous ones of the ’80s. Drummer Nick Kilroe kicked McCulloch through “Villiers Terrace,” so that by the time of “Seven Seas” mid-set, McCulloch’s voice was stretching nearly as well as the nimble group behind him. For the most part, McCulloch still hits the crescendo notes; the few times he just missed ’em, his grin—or most especially Seargant’s chord crashing on his incredible gaggle of vintage hollowbodies—carried every song right past where they were supposed to go.
Even crammed onto the Mercury Lounge’s stage, the band was nearly as sweeping as the Radio City Music Hall show last year where they performed Ocean Rain with an orchestra (which they’ll be doing in LA soon). But what made this show special, of course, was that it sure wasn’t Radio City. You could almost make out McCulloch’s mumbles between songs—hilarious asides about old Dallas episodes, asking if Billy Crystal was in the crowd, and after quoting some soliloquy from an Alec Guiness film, asking the audience if anyone could spell “soliloquy,” and then correcting the girl that yelled it out incorrectly.
The infamous Mac the Mouth cockiness felt more like the guy who ponies up to the bar to tell you there’s toilet paper stuck to your shoe, laughs at you, then buys you a beer. Back lighting only, with McCulloch wearing shades the entire time, proved he may retain some pop star insecurities. But his current humbled hue crashes quite excitingly into the sweeping sounds the band still creates, even when they quickly plugged in and breezed through like a garage band told to make it quick with their opening set, like when “Back of Love” tumbled faster as it went, then jumped off some cliff and up into “Killing Moon.”
The Bunnymen still have the increasingly cheeky habit of shoving a medley into the middle of songs, which can be illuminating, but I think we all know by now that this band likes the Doors (and that we’re all very sick of “Roadhouse Blues”). And please, I don’t care if it’s the Rolling Stones standing on the Mercury stage, nobody should play “Walk on the Wild Side” in New York City ever again, even in the middle of a medley.
The crowd was of the all guestlist variety. But unlike most early industry showcase gigs in town, where the band’s label staff stands up front cheering while the 20 other stragglers are wondering when the headliner is coming on, these industry vets were in seventh heaven up in here.
There was a coming-out party for St. Vincent last night. Those that didn’t already expect it were surely shocked by the intensity of Annie and company’s sonic attack. Singer/songwriter Annie Clark puts her pretty face front and center on the album covers, belying the disquieting experience of her live show. Ms. Clark went from reticent to wide-eyed, and by the end, was bent over her monitors, shredding some joyful noise. There aren’t many people writing songs these days that move so seamlessly from soulful harmonies to jarring bombast.
But just when you thought you knew what to expect, St. Vincent switched it up. “Marrow” was funky like Morris Day and the Time, and Annie provided a Princely guitar solo. They ended their set by drawing a crooked line back to the Velvets; dissonant string and guitar clashed as they recast “Your Lips Are Red” as the greatest middle-era Cure song never written. The crowd went ape-shit as the cacophony ceased into blackness.
Andrew Bird—well, he did his Andrew Bird thing. He had one almost painfully self-aware moment when he decided to skip the violin intro to one song, partly because he couldn’t quite remember it but mostly because he realized how much it was going to sound like some of the stuff he already played. His songs do tend to blend in concert and, I would imagine, tha’s one of the direst perils of being a one-man band and forcing yourself to weave your entire tapestry from a violin and a single guitar.
In general, tracks from the recent Noble Beast came-off best. The Dylanesque “Tenuousness” featured maracas, a new addition to the Bird repertoire, and even that small variation lifted the performance above the rest of the pack. “Anonanimal,” unique for its strong rhythmic drive and the bi-instrumental acrobatics required for Bird to perform it solo, elicited one of several disease-centered stories from the songwriter. His patter was always pretty deadbeat, as if he knew he didn’t need to put too much energy into it to get laughs. The crowd was hanging on and chucking at his every word, even his serious explanation of the serious philosophical content of the lyrics of “Darkmatter” (it’s about eating animals).
By the end of the night even the headliner had relented to the draw of St. Vincent, bringing first Annie (for a new Bird song and the St. Vincent classic “Marry Me”), then the entire band onstage. The regular set closed with the highlight of Bird’s time, “Scythian Empires.” The addition of the band, especially the drums and back-up vocals, took the song to heights even beyond the relatively well-adorned recorded version. Let’s hope that Bird learns to relish the feeling of leading a band and makes it more a part of his future sets. As for St. Vincent, don’t be surprised if they’re headlining and playing Led Zeppelin covers next time around.