In concert: Echo & The Bunnymen (Toronto; October 20, 2009)

 

“Grandiose” is a term long associated with Echo & The Bunnymen, who delivered a master class in pop pomp at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Tuesday night (October 20, 2009). Ostensibly touring a not-yet-released LP, the ticket-tipping point was an orchestra-backed performance of the quarter-century-old Ocean Rain album, and it was, in a pointedly appropriate word, majestic.

Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch recently hit a bum note, calling out co-founder/guitarist Will Sergeant over the latter’s dearth of new material, and the fan forums burbled with talk of a McCulloch solo album being rebranded as a new Bunnymen record with eleventh-hour involvement from his chastened bandmate.

And with Sergeant’s usually inventive work in tellingly short supply on the mediocre new LP, $65 seemed a little steep to see a veteran band with a fraying fan base and nothing new to shout about. Hence, the now-popular “classic album revisited” format, presented as the second act to an opening best-of set. It’s a mite cynical to suggest band and fan are in on the same joke, but maybe this is how both sides keep each other happy as they grow old together.

That best-of set sped by in 50 minutes, a hot-and-cold race through the discography, touching down on 1980’s debut album Crocodiles (“All That Jazz,” “Rescue”), the shimmering  1985 single “Bring On The Dancing Horses” and a clutch of songs post-dating the band’s 1997 reformation (including only two from the forthcoming The Fountain).

Cult favourite LPs Heaven Up Here and Porcupine were short-shrifted, a regrettable but understandable decision, given the theme of the night. The thing is, the omissions (“Back Of Love,” “A Promise”) suggested missed opportunities, because the band was tight, the sound was fantastic and McCulloch – who’s long since smoked his upper range away – was confident on the mike all night, largely shunning the dusky Chris Martin croon he’s used for the past decade.

 

Ocean Rain’s charm is easy to figure: amazing songs, superb arrangements. And real strings. That gets lost now, but history shows that for all the great songs charging out of the radio in 1984, few of ‘em had real string sections, preferring cheaper, synthesized alternatives. The goalposts that define great music shift all the time, but Ocean Rain’s realness was coolly out-of-fashion then, and sounded absolutely wonderful Tuesday. All of that swooping, trilling drama sparked back to life with the gleaming opener “Silver,” and held fast for the next 40 minutes. Freed from headphones or small room speakers, “Thorn Of Crowns” and “My Kingdom” crackled with vigour; McCulloch hung onto the mike stand for dear life while the 10-piece string-and-percussion section flared and crashed around him, while Sergeant’s delay-ridden guitar fired the instrumental breaks, while the crowd sang the verses and boogied in its seats.

Of course, everybody was waiting on “The Killing Moon.” What a fucking song. I think it’s just about the most torridly romantic piece of its time, but the damn thing has always given the band fits because it’s too ornate for a small combo to handle, and the brazen final chorus is a bitch to warble. Sensing this, McCulloch forgoes the daring of the gorgeous recorded vocal for a grounded croon, and usually it leaves the poor thing sounding undercooked. That could’ve happened again Tuesday, were it not for the steaming string arrangement, which covered his shortcomings and earned the band its first standing ovation of the night.

For a guy who hasn’t taken off his sunglasses for like four albums, McCulloch was in pretty good humour. Late in the show he finally scored a cigarette, an amusing gesture of defiance sure to earn a minor fine, but the old man can take a punch: “Toronto, you’ve pushed me around,” he mumbled, before the Bunnymen delivered an unexpected encore featuring the deep catalogue “All My Colours” and populist fave “Lips Like Sugar.”

In a word: majestic.

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