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.
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.
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.
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/songotaku.