Wednesday, 31 August 2016

1,000 ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN, The Probes, Oxford O2 Academy, Wednesday 31st August 2016

The big milestone of gig No. 1,000 is reached! And it seemed only fitting that the hosts of this monumental occasion were to be Echo And The Bunnymen, hosts of my gig No. 2 back in December 1981 in this very town, and my first real rock obsession as my late-teen musical tastes morphed from formulaic punk rock to the more emotive and individual post-punk early 80’s slew of bands, this movement being encapsulated by my love for the drama, epic sweeping majesty and glacial cool of The Bunnymen, the band who were to become my “home team”, the band against which, subconsciously or not, all others have been measured (and most found wanting…). Tonight also represented the 15th time of asking overall for The Bunnymen, and it also only seemed fitting that joining me for tonight, following a bit of last-minute grandma sleepover jiggery pokery, is my dear lady wife Rachel, for our own 376th gig together!

After dropping the kids off, we traversed a sunny beat route to Oxford, parking after a short wait in the busy Tesco car park, then popping in the Bullingdon for a facility usage, which actually proved unnecessary; the huge queue we’d spotted outside the O2 was in fact for the upstairs Sticky Fingers gig, and we walked straight in to the early-doors deserted downstairs venue! A short wait then for support The Probes, on at 8; a painfully young looking quartet in a trippy psych-pop headspace, their hazy, summery La’s/ Byrds opener segued into a faster, metronomic 60’s B Movie car chase instrumental which undulated and meandered but ultimately wore on the patience somewhat throughout its’ prodigious length. This set the tone for their set; each song (or part-song) melded into the next, with an occasional rhythmic bar or vignette which was pleasant enough, but they’d then stretch it out ad nauseum, mistaking interminable repetition for absorbing rhythm. They eventually closed out their 40 minute set, during which they might have played 3 songs, might have played 9, or any number in between… who knows?

An entertaining chat with an old Bunnyfan with tinnitus (“who were they? The Probes? I’d rather be anally probed than listen to that lot again!”), before we took a wander down the front, stage right as the place filled up good and proper. Sparse early doors, but it was old school hot and heaving just before showtime… which surprisingly came exactly as scheduled at 9.15, the usual Gregorian chanting heralding The Bunnymen onstage in short order. And in no mood to fuck about; straight into opener “Going Up”, the eerie opening building to a crescendo before Mac’s voice chimed in, immediately sounding good, clear, decisive even! “Thanks for coming, Oxford – we like it here!” announced The Voice, before a surprising fan favourite “Heads Will Roll”, Mac gunning for the high notes in the chorus with vim and determination. On it tonight!

Thus was the case; The Bunnymen were simply brilliant tonight, possibly as good as I’ve seen them since their reunion, the band musically tough and tight, with Will’s intricate guitar play weaving a haunting and evocative spell… and then we had Mac…! Let’s face it, Echo And The Bunnymen stand and fall these days on whether vocalist and Head Bunny Ian McCulloch is up for it, and tonight I’m happy to report he was on top form, totally engaged in the performance, in playful, flippant mood in his banter and exchanges with the audience (myself included – more on that later!), and the voice, whilst a little rasping and inevitably lacking some of the soaring top-end of his youthful pomp, sounded excellent, doing full justice to those soaring choruses when required. The strident strobe and drumbeat drama of “All That Jazz” led into the Velvet Underground-esque monotone rhythm of deliciously obscure “B” side “Angels And Devils”, and the subsequent “Do It Clean” was superb, massive and epic, Mac smuggling in a “Sex Machine” vignette.

“Are you all from Oxford?” Mac asked, and I, from my now centre stage spot, couldn’t resist shouting out, “Swindon!” to which the great man retorted, “Swindon? Aye, I’ve been there… well, to the outskirts…!” A couple of mid-set ballads (including “In The Margins”, which elicited a comment of “what’s next? Bloody ‘ell, not done this one in ages,” from Mac) slowed the pace and enabled us to catch our breath, as the packed room was by now uncomfortably hot and sweaty, Mac responding to a punter’s request by ordering, “turn the fans on, you dozy bastards!” As he spake, so shall it be, the joyous subsequent singalong for “Rescue” being accompanied by a welcome blast of cool air, and by Mac’s one-note guitar riffery, to a friendly ribbing from this knowledgeable crowd.

An eerie, Doors-like organ embellished a creepy-crawly “Bedbugs And Ballyhoo”, before a singalong “Seven Seas” prompted Mac to remark, “I tell [audiences] to shut up normally but you sound good!” then warning us, “don’t overdo it – my brother went to Cambridge, it’s miles better than this place!” before conducting the singalong to “Bring On The Dancing Horses”. A reverential hush however greeted “The Killing Moon”, introduced by Mac as, “I think… the greatest song ever written,” the stripped back, haunting and hushed rendition accentuating a sublime vocal reading and almost – almost! – living up to the hype.

The soaring, epic chorus of “Lips Like Sugar” rounded off a quite majestic performance, bookended by encores of a stately “Nothing Lasts Forever”, featuring some lyrical diversions, including a Lou Reed tribute (“take a walk of the wild side, take a walk on Merseyside…”), before a quite brilliant “Cutter” ended proceedings, the galloping, all-encompassing soaring climax a fitting end to a wonderful, almost flawless set. Despite my love and devotion for The Bunnymen down the years (or maybe because of it), they’ve had the capacity to crush and disappoint in the recent past, so their presence as hosts of this landmark gig felt a little risky. However, as I grabbed a set-list after a lengthy wait and discussed it with Rachel (whose immediate, more subjective, reaction was that they were, “excellent”), I felt completely vindicated. A superb performance from a tight, taut band, and a consummate frontman showing from Mac, conducting band and crowd alike and delivering a magnificent and (dare I say it) even fun gig. An utterly fitting way to celebrate the milestone gig no. 1,000!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

999 THE DICKIES, Ashley Reaks, Bristol Fleece, Saturday 6th August 2016

This was always going to be a bit of a mad one; The Dickies, veteran Californian cartoon punk rockers and demolishers of unsuspecting rock’n’roll standards, back on my gig itinerary for the first time since that chaotically brilliant Damned support slot, back in December 2012 (gig 867)… However, the crazy factor took an unexpected – and some might say unwelcome – sideways turn with the announcement that vocalist Leonard Graves Phillips had been hospitalised a couple of days prior to the gig. A band facebook announcement revealed that in true punk rock fashion, the band were soldiering on, with a plethora of guest vocalists being arranged “on the fly” to backfill for their absent leader. There was therefore no question of my not attending, but I wondered… given that the hyperactive, helium voiced, manically gabbling Leonard, plus his selection of props, puppets and toys, is such an intrinsic part of The Dickies “live” experience, how would they fare without him? Would this be either a glorious and chaotic triumph, or a disjointed punk rock karaoke disaster?

With anticipation/ trepidation, I set off and parked up just before 8, wandering into the very quiet early doors venue, being handed a note regarding Leonard’s absence on the way in. Saw guitarist and fellow original member Stan Lee walking around the venue making lists and allocating potential singers to tracks, so I enquired about Leonard, then was asked by the Scottish merch guy if I can sing! Graciously declined the “opportunity”, but chatted with him about tonight’s plans; they’re still working them up! As the place filled up, we were subjected to the support slot stylings of soloist Ashley Reaks and his accompanied “art”, consisting of provocative sexual imagery which for me reaked (sic) of deliberate and slightly puerile 6th form style shock tactics. A couple of early beatbox samba driven numbers were equally poor and potty mouthed, but then Reaks played a pretty passable Billy Bragg-styled punk rock track from his “Planet Grot” album, followed by a decent reading of The Cure’s classic creepy goth track “A Forest”! Hmmm…

Took a wander down the front as The Dickies (well, the 4 remaining members, anyway) set up, then gave the thumbs up to start the set at 10 past 9, Stan announcing, “help us out, you guys!” before leading the band into the anthemic fanfare of instrumental opener “Rondo (The Midget’s Revenge)”. Hefty bassist Eddie then filled us in; Leonard’s in hospital in Luton, some kidney problem, complications but not life threatening, but he wanted the tour to continue – “it’s all about the music, it’s all about you guys!” So on came the first “guest” vocalist; Ian the merch guy I’d been chatting to earlier, done up as “Where’s Wally”, and with a fun manic pogoing stage presence to make up for his inevitable vocal shortfall. Nonetheless, he did a sterling job, powering through amphetamine-fast and ridiculously hooky and singalong US punk rock classics such as “Fan Mail”, a superb “Nights In White Satin” and a frenzied “Waterslide”, powered throughout by the gnats-chuff-tight rhythm section of the dickie-bowed drummer and the aforementioned – and nuclear metronome-wristed – bassist Eddie. Eddie himself and second guitarist Ben took a turn on vocals before dragging their suave driver Dale on for a strident, eye-popping “Paranoid”, then a local punter on for “You Drive Me Ape”, which honestly the guy fucked up totally! Still, as he said, he was just walking past…! The real surprise, however, was reserved for when The Dickies invited the venue owner, Blue Aeroplanes bassist Chris Sharp, onto the stage. Apparently only knowing one Dickies number, and having been given an hour to learn 2 more, he brought a sheaf of lyric crib-sheets onstage and totally nailed a brilliant “Give It Back” and “Rosemary”. Ian then returned for set-closing double “If Stuart Could Talk” and “Gigantor” (for which he donned an impromptu towel “cape”), the band then leaving the stage to a huge reception. So, triumph or disaster? Thankfully, it veered considerably towards the former!

Encores of an almost straight “Breaking The Law” (the old Judas Priest HM chugger) and the inevitable “Banana Splits”, again delivered superbly by Chris, ended proceedings, and I grabbed the list and scampered around collecting signatures and offering congrats. Shorn of Leonard’s cartoon stylings and props, this felt more like a conventional “rock” show, but nonetheless The Dickies – and their guest vocalists – made it a thoroughly entertaining evening of vintage crazy and singalong punk rock. Be well and get better soon Leonard; 2016 has already taken away far more than it deserves to. But in the meantime, rest up and rest assured that your boys – and Ian the merch guy – are doing you proud!