Echo and The Bunnymen with Kelley Stoltz @ The Paradise Rock Club (Boston, MA), Monday, May 8, 2011.
Guitar strings can inflict damage. Serious damage. The high E string can be used as a garrote, effectively slicing a larynx like a piece of ripe gouda. Or, the lower E, with its coiled winding, can effectively saw through any particular body part given enough cycles. Echo and the Bunnymen were masters at delivering this sort of sonic slash attack, and were never stronger than their first two records. They'd already done a short round of the 'play the LP' tour of duty of the lush, magical Ocean Rain record, but this tour was to look back at their earliest beginnings, with a full airing of Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here.
To be honest, had I the power to command the band to play any two records of their discography, these two would find themselves at the top. Will Sergeant's slicing tone was never better, and Ian McCulloch's stentorian intonations fueled the songs, driving darkness into all corners. The ensuing three decades (with countless cigarettes passed through his throat) have worn McCulloch's voice to where the high end is a memory, but to be honest this was the fourth time seeing the band in about six years and his vocals sounded stronger than ever. The band's garb was also evocative of their early days, fatigue jackets and camo netting adorned the stage, and despite the pulsing, dramatic lighting of floor cans and blasts of strobes from behind, for the most part the band was shrouded in darkness. Just how McCulloch likes it, the only front lighting provided by the ever present glowing end of cigarette, hands perched on top of the mic.
After the second song ("Stars Are Stars") started, that dispensed with the uncertainty of whether the UK or US version of their debut record was to be performed (UK, natch, though they did perform "Do It Clean" in the encore, and for unknown reasons "Read It In Books", the B-side of their debut single, was also played during the regular set). And then came "Pride," a perfect example of why these "Don't Look Back" shows are so special. The pounding floor toms and serrated guitar riffs that start the song soon blossom into an almost sympathetic tone as McCulloch wails about his sisters, brothers, father and mother. This is a fantastic song, and one that would likely never get played in a normal set list. McCulloch and Sergeant were the only original members playing (of course, original drummer Pete de Freitas was available after dying in a tragic motorbike accident after the eponymous fifth LP, and bassist Les Pattinson seems content with retirement from music), and for the most the part, the other four (gtr, bass, keys and drums) filled in pretty well, though the explosiveness of de Freitas was missing, especially on the high voltage jolt of "Crocodiles."
As auspicious as their debut LP was, the follow up of Heaven Up Here showed a striking maturity of sound and reach. The first three songs of this record signal a whole new dynamic, from the opening driving bass line of "Show Of Strength" to the cloistered urgency of "With A Hip" and the brooding buildup of "Over The Wall." A serious record, for an increasingly serious band. They would later shed some of this starkness for a more playful, even dance-able sound on later records but never quite equal its heights.
The encore was a bit of a strange affair. For a show like this, you'd expect die hard fans to be in attendance, and to dole out B sides like "Simple Stuff" or "Broke My Neck" would be great choices. Aside from the aforementioend "Do It Clean," the band churned out a couple of their biggest hits ("Bring On The Dancing Horses" and "Lips Like Sugar") and ended with a song of their last record, "Nothing Lasts Forever." How they got out of the building without playing "The Killing Moon" was a question on everyone's mind, and there were no good answers, especially because this song was played (along with "The Cutter") on most of the other dates.
Opener Kelley Stoltz is avowed fan of Echo, even to the point of slavishly covering the first record under the recording Crockodials. That said, his band played some flavor of adept yet fairly unremarkable workmanlike singer-songwriter fare, with only the song "Fire Escape" showing any hint of the post-punk influence of his record collection.