Dear Mr. Echo
October 2, 2008
In all my years of living in New York City, I had never been to Radio City Music Hall, not for a Christmas show, not for a rock show, not even for a tour when I was an intern at Rolling Stone, a mere two blocks away. In all my years of adoring Echo & the Bunnymen, I had never seen them live. The former finds its excuse in the old adage that New Yorkers never take advantage of their town. The latter–well, I became slightly obsessed with Echo & the Bunnymen two years after they broke up (the first time), in 1990.
During that summer, a remaindered copy of Ocean Rain (1984) made its way into my burgeoning remaindered-vinyl collection (Yes, I have a ton of worthess vinyl records, purchased in 1990, during the Great Vinyl Discontinuation). I spent about a month listening to Ocean Rain–and very little other than Ocean Rain, except for maybe some Depeche Mode. Like many of the albums I have obsessively listened to over the years, I still know every word to every song. Unlike most of the albums I’ve had similar obsessions with, I don’t know a damned bit what they mean.
Ocean Rain is not about song lyrics. If it were, then it would be a fairly nonsensical and incoherent album. From the opening lyric of “Silver” (“Swung from a chandelier / my planet sweet on a silver salver”) to the much-more-sensible, but still obscure closer, “Ocean Rain” (“Screaming from beneath the waves”), it doesn’t make much sense. (I did find myself very proud at the time for having known what a silver salver was, having learned its definition via Barry Paris’s biography of Louise Brooks. Second obsession of early teen years: silent film star biographies.) No, Ocean Rain is not about song lyrics.
Ocean Rain is about exactly two things: dense, orchestral textures and Ian McCulloch’s wide-ranging voice. His voice was warm and delightful, emerging from the speakers and surrounding you like drinking a hot toddy while wrapped in a fuzzy blanket. And that is exactly why I had to go see Echo & the Bunnymen at Radio City Music Hall. The show advertised Echo & the Bunnymen performing Ocean Rain with an orchestra! Of course, then I wondered: would Ian McCulloch still sound good after all these years? He’s done lots of drinking, smoking, and other things that are not exactly conducive to vocal longevity. And would he still have that hair?
Yes, that hair.
When we got to Radio City Music Hall, I realized with dismay that I could not answer the last of these questions. Our seats were in the very last row of the very last mezzanine. Ah, well.
The opening band, Glasvegas, might have been good. I think they were; their songs seemed pretty catchy. But there was a horrible, horrible microphone issue with the band’s bass drum, which the standing drummer played on its side. I could hear little else, but the boom-boom-boom-boom of the steady beat.
After hearing nothin’ but bass for a good 40 minutes, I worried that the Bunnymen would similarly suffer sound problems. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about: their sound guy was aces. Their first set included energetic, sometimes extended versions of their non-Ocean Rain hits, including “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” “The Cutter,” and “Rescue,” but also their much richer cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange.” Between songs,
I honestly don’t know if the years of boozing and whatnot have affected Ian McCulloch’s voice–there was a fair amount of reverb on his mic, which probably corrected a lot of mistakes. But he could still sing, and his voice is still timbrally cozy. He used his lower range a bit more, but who knows what that means? I do highly suspect that he was drunk off his ass–his stage banter was completely incomprehensible, and it was not due to his Liverpudlian accent–by the end of the first set.
The second set, with a small orchestra (really, I’d call it a “string ensemble, plus French horn and percussion”), toured through the songs from Ocean Rain. It was incredible for me, as a fan of the group, to see it performed with an orchestra (however small). The strings added density and acoustic richness, harmonic fullness, and varied textures. On the other hand, as a classical music snob, I was not exactly happy with violins’ intonation at times, and the French horns were not quite up to task (but when are they?).
In completely nonmusical aspects of the show: there was a woman, similarly in the last row, who flashed her boobs during EATB’s first set. Seriously, what was she thinking? That Ian McCulloch has eagle-eyed boob-o-vision?
And FYI: Radio City Music Hall has the best bathrooms in New York City.
This blog entry is for Andrea Lam, who could not be at the show last night, since she has real responsibilities, but who is the biggest Echo & the Bunnymen fan I know.