Sunday, 6 February 2011

803 ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN, Kelly Stoltz, Oxford O2 Academy, Monday 6 December 2010

NB - set list was for the encores

“A Masterclass In Rock’n’Roll” was the strap-line for this one. Echo And The Bunnymen, my “home team” during my musical formative years, playing both their first 2 albums in one night; “Crocodiles”, their plangent, chiming, surprisingly mature debut, then their masterpiece “Heaven Up Here”, a magnificently moody, brooding thing of grand, majestic sweeping range and vision, which still sounds other-worldly after 29 years, remaining firmly one of my all-time favourite albums and undisputedly my most-played album ever. I eagerly booked tix for Saturday’s Birmingham gig, only for them to announce this one, a damn sight closer, and for Rachel to fall in love with Biffy Clyro, whose Wembley gig clashed with B’rum. Thus was that ticket sacrificed, so I could again return to the town I first saw the Bunnymen, 29 years and 2 days ago!

After a foggy drive down the A421, Oxford was broached surprisingly easily (green lights all the way!) and I parked up in good time for support Kelly Stoltz, who played at 8 to a surprisingly sparse crowd. He and his 6-piece band played a nice line in Velvets-like garage psychedelia, with some chunky drums and meaty melody. A cover of a number dating from 1965 didn’t sound out of place, and Stoltz, clearly psyched to be supporting the Bunnymen, also told a nice anecdote of his mother sorting him a Bunnymen cake for his 13th birthday!

I met up with Peej and the crew, then wormed my way to the front, stage right, as the place filled up, dry ice choked the stage and the Bunnymen kept us waiting ¼ hour past their allotted time, before the Gregorian chanting heralded their entrance. Mac, an indistinct figure through the lingering fog, seemed distracted from the outset, perhaps by Liverpool’s clashing footy game, and almost reluctantly kicked the gig into gear.

Frankly, “Crocodiles” was a bit of a mess, the band playing these numbers too loudly and rockily, burying the touching, quiet resonance of the slower, more introverted bedsit material with layers of riffery. Mac’s voice, a strident heavenly proclamation even as recently as last year here, seemed ragged and off key at times, particularly when required to raise an octave and really drive a number along, and some numbers notwithstanding (a splendid “All That Jazz” and "Villier’s Terrace”, again chiming and resonant) the whole thing seemed rushed and ham-fisted. “Happy Death Men” was an utter car-crash, Mac’s voice hopelessly out of tune, and I feared for the soaring melody of “A Promise” in particular.

Happily, “Show Of Strength” marked a sea change in the set, with Mac’s voice in finer fettle, the light and shade of “Heaven Up Here"’s doomy opener actually handled with more reverence, rather than the trampling “Crocodiles” generally received. “Over The Wall”, introduced by Mac as, “the song which set ourselves apart from… ourselves,” was magnificent; building like steam then riding headlong into a rollercoaster of crashing and tumbling guitar and rhythm, then crashing into crescendo after crescendo. Wonderful stuff, and easily the best number on show tonight.

Thankfully my fears for “A Promise” were allayed, with Mac alternating between octaves and generally hitting the notes; “Heaven Up Here”, the jagged whirlwind title track, was also splendid, strident and thrilling, and overall “Heaven Up Here” received better treatment than its’ predecessor, although again some later tracks seemed rushed, as if Mac needed to get off and check the Liverpool score.

A very uneven set was capped with fine encore renditions of “Lips Like Sugar”, and a fine, anthemic closing “Cutter”, before Mac, who’d spouted inanties throughout the set, mumbled something about paedophiles and went off. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed after this game of two halves, as I hit the foggy drive back, getting home just after midnight. “A Masterclass In Rock’n’Roll”? Partly. A masterclass in singing, and the Art of the Frontman? Nope. Sorry Mac.

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