REVIEW: Echo and the Bunnymen get serious at The Masonic

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Echo and the Bunnymen, , Ian McCulloch

Echo and the Bunnymen perform at The Masonic in San Francisco Dec. 3, 2018. Photos: Karen Goldman.

SAN FRANCISCO — British bands in the ’80s seemed serious. Clad in black, they rarely smiled in photos, and their music seemed edgy and mysterious compared to their raucous American counterparts. Liverpool’s new wave sensations Echo and the Bunnymen were no exception, and when they stopped at the Masonic on Monday, it was all business—the very serious business of emotion.

Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage for the penultimate date on their North American The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon tour in support of their new album of the same name—a collection of the band’s classic songs “reimagined.” Frontman Ian McCulloch’s thick accent made his stage banter nearly indecipherable, so he greeted the audience with a simple “Hello San Francisco” before the band launched into “Going Up,” off 1980 album Crocodiles. The song, featuring a chugging bass line and some guitar noise over electronic-sounding drums sounded so much like the ’80s that some fans could surely smell the Aqua Net. 

Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch

Echo and the Bunnymen perform at The Masonic in San Francisco Dec. 3, 2018.

McCulloch, closing in on 60, posted himself at the microphone and cast a spell over the graying audience. The band didn’t move much, allowing the elaborate light show to communicate the kinetic energy of the music.

The sextet created a thick wall of sound with original guitarist Will Sergeant creating complex musical filigrees and sonic washes of sound with his elaborate onstage rig. The band ran through “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” and “Rescue.” To the casual listener, both of these versions sounded fairly close to the originals, rather than reimagined.

McCulloch’s voice was instantly recognizable and still managed to convey an emotional depth and earnestness that feels rare and special in 2018. The Bunnymen brooded intensely as they ran through single “Never Stop” and “All That Jazz,” from Crocodiles.

“Zimbo (All My Colours)” consisted of guitar feedback and pounding drums until bassist Stephen Brannan dropped a heavy groove. McCulloch joined in, chanting “All my colors” and the word “Zimbo” at various times during the song. On “The Somnambulist,” a new song on The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, stabs of synthesizer and guitar punctuated the groove before the band broke into an anthemic chorus.

During Crocodiles track “Villiers Terrace,” when McCulloch stepped away from the mic, the groove grew vaguely honky-tonkish. When he returned, the groove had morphed into The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” McCulloch pulled off a convincing Jim Morrison, belting out the iconic lines, “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.” 

Nothing Lasts Forever,” from 1997’s Evergreen, came next. During an extended breakdown the groove changed, giving way to the iconic bass line from Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Fans sang along to the famous “do-dee-do” refrain. Will Sergeant finished the song out with a tasty slide guitar part. 

Echo and the Bunnymen, Will Sergeant

Echo and the Bunnymen perform at The Masonic in San Francisco Dec. 3, 2018.

A new rendition of “Seven Seas” featured acoustic guitar and a lovely repeating bass line that anchored the song with a melodic hook. McCulloch joined in for the huge chorus. “Rust” had a strange organ sound at the outset but soon grew deep and intense, with McCulloch sounding prophetic while singing the final line: “Everything’s going to be all right.”

Echo and the Bunnymen saved their biggest hits for the end of the night. McCulloch asked the crowd to sing along to “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” from the Pretty in Pink film soundtrack. With the opening notes of “Killing Moon,” fans rose to their feet from their comfortable chairs and sang along to the cryptic romanticism of McCulloch’s iconic lyrics. They closed out the end of its set with the slithery guitar melody of “The Cutter,” off 1983’s Porcupine.

The band returned to play two encores. The first one included an extended version of their hit “Lips Like Sugar,” from their 1987 self-titled album, firing up the crowd with the song’s infectious two-part harmony. During the jam, McCulloch wadded up a large white towel before half-heartedly kicking it into the crowd. Then, after leaving and returning to the stage, the band left the audience with a sparse and haunting rendition “Ocean Rain,” from 1984’s album of the same name. McCulloch’s preternatural calm added to the song’s intensity. The band left the stage with a simple, “Thank you, San Francisco.”

The evening began with a mellow acoustic set from opening duo Enation. Frontman Jonathan Jackson sang and played guitar while Richard Lee Jackson banged on various percussion instruments. The set concluded with a new song called “Ultravox,” about the singer’s experiences traveling in Ireland.

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(7) Comments

  1. PD Sexton

    Hi there, I was at the Bunnymen show in SF last night, and it was one of the worst shows I've ever seen. I've been a fan of the band for over 30 years and last saw them play live in 1988. Last night, the band seemed afraid to play. Will's guitar was barely audible with Ian's voice being mixed way too loud. There was no wall of sound, unless you mean McCulloch's voice and the keyboards. For a guitar band, the instrument that stood out in the mix, through out the night, was the keyboards, which should have just been support and flourish. Also, the bass guitar sounded like rubber bands. The bassist played Les's parts well, but they sounded low end, just weak and twangy. I felt like I just witnessed the lounge act version of the Bunnymen. I wish someone would "Rescue" Will Sergeant and help him find a band that appreciates his talent. I blame McCulloch.

    1. Don

      I couldn’t agree more. I have been a huge fan since Crocodiles and have seen them live 5/6 times and this was an incredibly painful show. The vibe was they just didn’t give a shit and were exhausted. My wife, who only likes a couple of songs, dubbed them Echo and a the Boringmen. Sadly, I had to agree with her. I can’t recall if I’ve ever left a show early in my life, but we did on Monday night when they started The Cutter. Sad to have missed Ocean Rain, but it was a tough night.

  2. Atomica

    While I generally enjoyed the show, I mostly agree with PD. The performance was really lackluster and seemed phoned-in. Being so close to the end of the tour, they are probably fatigued. That Doors/?/Velvets medley was really misguided. The opening band was *terrible* - we decided to go out to the lobby and have a conversation instead of subjecting ourselves to more than three of Enation's songs.

  3. Angelique Gettle

    Opening band was repetitious in terms of lyrics and singers voice range. After seeing the reviews I had very low expectations but I was meeting a blind date there so I persevered. The music sounded okay but Ian is a full-blown alcoholic and this man should not be enabled or supported in his own self destruction. Ian's voice seemed very worn from smoking drinking and age. It was very hard to understand anything he said and the only thing he seemed fixated on was his drink. When they left the stage during the oncore I said to my acquaintance, there is still a glass of booze up there on stage so I guess that means Ian's coming back. I really wanted to like this show and wanted to feel nostalgic about it. For a whole month I was listening to all their old songs and they're really incredible. Echo & the Bunnymen are very talented musically with poetic and passionate lyrics. But I might have just not bothered even getting tickets if I knew it was going to be this much of a dud or that I'd be contributing to yet another lead singer's bottom.

    1. Philip

      I saw the SLC show and they were VERY good -- perhaps because this show was a couple weeks earlier. Additionally, Ian never smoked once (leading me to believe he has finally quit). As far as the "drink," like MANY signers, Ian had "throat coat" (a mixture of honey and green tea) -- ZERO detection of an inebriated performance! I don't know what you all saw, perhaps it WAS fatigue at the end of a tour. Again, MY show was worth every penny!

  4. Bill

    Saw them tonight and they were absolutely stunning! Top quality sound and production from the crew plus Ian was in a friendly mood and actually conversed with the audience. This is the 5th time I’ve seen them at various events over the past few years and I’ve no complaints. I agree with Philip, must have been fatigue as Peter Hook showed the same symptoms at the end of a rather hectic year in December.

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