Happy Birthday Rachel! I sorted these tickets at Christmas for a birthday surprise for Rach to go see one of her favourite bands; James, once again playing The Colston Hall around her birthday. A “live” staple of mine back in the 80’s as well, James’ performance here 3 years ago partly restored my faith in my former quirky student indie faves turned baggy Manc wave-riders, purging their subsequent stadium bore reputation somewhat. Furthermore, this gig had the added intrigue of the support; Echo And The Bunnymen, my “home team” favourite band in my late teens, who crushed me with a poor showing last time out, Ian McCulloch’s voice being particularly off-key, so definitely in need of some redemption in my eyes. The 13th time I’d seen both these bands, stretching back to the early 80’s in both cases; who would prove the most enduring, here in 2013?
I figured this to be an early one, so Rach and I left at 6, hitting some delays en route but parking up on the roof of the partly-closed car park opposite, taking our seats at 7.20. I’d hesitated slightly before booking tix, and this was reflected in our position; on the balcony of this large theatre, 3 rows from the back! Still, a good view… The Bunnymen came onstage promptly (for them!) to their usual Gregorian chant intro music, easing into opener “Lips Like Sugar”. The first test – could McCulloch sustain the octave straddling chorus note? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding Yes. And how!
Tonight the Bunnymen were restored to their imperious best. The backlit strobes made it difficult to pick out the mostly static band, but tonight there was no mistaking The Voice. This wasn’t Mac going through the motions as per last time out, this was a man using the full range and emotional impact of The Bunnymen’s most powerful asset, with the band unafraid to completely strip back the instrumentation at times at let Mac’s voice carry the songs. A chiming “Rescue” featured a lyric reference to obscure oldie “Broke My Neck”, and the magnificent “Villier’s Terrace” segued effortlessly into The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”, mid-song. “We’ve not been here since 1982 – but the old girl’s still got it, and I’m not talking about Elton John,” Mac announced. Damn straight.
“Zimbo”, a stunning mid-set highlight, finally saw the inevitable dry ice envelop the blood red backlit stage, adding to the eerie feel of this tribal drumbeat-led elegy. “All That Jazz” was a brilliant, toughened up march, meaty, big and beaty, and a set highlight for me. The sweeping drama of “The Killing Moon” was introduced by an only partly tongue-in-cheek Mac with, “this is allegedly the best song ever written.” Then, a faultless and all-too short set finally culminated in “The Cutter”, Mac taking one last opportunity to let his voice soar unfettered during the song’s climax, giving me goosebumps in the process. Redemption assured; maybe The Bunnymen should always play this early, if this is the outcome!
The set in full; Lips Like Sugar, Rescue, Villier’s Terrace/ Roadhouse Blues, Seven Seas, Bring On The Dancing Horses, Bedbugs And Ballyhoo, Zimbo, The Disease, All That Jazz, Nothing Lasts Forever, The Killing Moon, The Cutter. Every one a winner. Superb stuff!
Rach and I eschewed the bar queues and got ice creams instead during the interval, grabbing some comfy seats to stretch our legs after our tiny confined balcony seats. We wandered back in for James’ arrival at 9 prompt; the band wandered on unheralded, Tim Booth taking the stage last, then announcing stark opener “Dust Motes” with, “this one craves your silence; we use it as a litmus test of whether an audience can shut the fuck up!"
Thence followed one of the most variable sets I’ve seen since Blondie, here back in 2004. Rach’s face cracked into a huge grin for a lovely early “Just Like Fred Astaire”, as Tim abandoned the stage and wandered through the crowd. The staccato dancing of the subsequent chugging beat of “Waltzing Along” saw him again transformed into the little funny dancing guy from those 80’s Bierkeller days. However “Seven” featured some discordant and quite jarring trumpeting, spoiling an otherwise good oldie, and a subsequent dull number actually saw loads of fellow balcony people head for an early loo break! “Johnny Yen”, however, revived the set; a marvellous version of this (very) oldie, tumbling drums to the fore, and “How Was It For You” (pre-empted by guitarist Larry Gott, who played the opening riff prior to “Johnny Yen” then remarked he should be following the set-list, which prompted Booth to confess, “you may have noticed we don’t know what we’re doing!”) was brilliant, herky-jerky and sinewy mutant dance, and damn fine for a song allegedly not played “live” for 20 years! The subsequent “We’re Gonna Miss You” was introduced as a song to exorcise a curse from an old girlfriend, and the dark, backlit stage fitted the song’s moody, mysterious edge perfectly. A lengthy, libidinous “Sound”, featuring some swirling trumpet and low, moody bass, completed a splendid mid-set section.
However, it went downhill for me thereafter. 3 new numbers (hey, it just wouldn’t be a James gig without some newies, they’re perverse like that…) were OK, but the middle one featured an interminable and tortuous violin solo, again spoiling the number. The inevitable “Sit Down”, the former all-inclusive little baggy manifesto turned housewife-friendly radio anthem, was perfunctorily delivered, but nevertheless had all the gig tourists standing up. Ironic that. The late-period Simple Minds-lite of “Born Of Frustration” was frankly rubbish, and it took a good, loose limbed “Come Home” to end the set on a positive note for me, although the band took a lengthy curtain call from the audience.
Encores were also variable; “Getting Away With It” dragged, but the conversational verses of the excellent “Sometimes” built to huge galloping chorus crescendos, and the ramshackle drumrolls and kitchen sink smut of a final “Laid” ended an overlong 2 hour set nicely.
So James; a mix of the brilliant and banal, but overall worth sitting through some Frustration for the likes of “Johnny Yen”. But for me The Bunnymen towered over this evening, restoring my faith in my old “home team”. Overall, though, a fine evening out for the Birthday Girl!