Show Review: Echo & the Bunnymen with Kelley Stoltz at The Warfield, 5/19/2011

by Jonathan Pirro on May 20, 2011

The pictures on my wall // Are about to swing and fall

The pictures on my wall // Are about to swing and fall

Roughly a year and a half ago, British post-punk dreamers Echo & the Bunnymen came to American shores for just a few stops to host a darkly gorgeous, orchestra-accompanied performance of their classic album Ocean Rain. No doubt inspired by the success of their tour and the continuing trend of artists who perform full-album sets at their shows, the Liverpool-based quintet was back in town with a similar formula, although taken to a much greater length. This time around, frontman Ian McCulloch and the rest of the crew were performing TWO of their older records — their debut Crocodiles and sophomore effort Heaven Up Here — with a 3-song encore after each. Lest the smallish crowd and the lower capacity of the venue place doubts in the mind of those who passed by the Warfield Theater on Thursday night, the excitement and enthusiasm from the fans was even more fervent than for the band’s Ocean Rain performance, and the group themselves performed with even greater intensity than before.

Kelley Stoltz introducing himself and his band

Kelley Stoltz introducing himself and his band

While the selection of San Franciscan singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz might have seemed an odd choice to open for the haunting post-punkers, the dark-clothed crooner introduced his set by telling the story of how he recorded his own cover of the Crocodiles album, recorded entirely on his own with an 8-track. He brought a few of these songs, and several other covers, into his short but excellent set. Accompanied by a backup band that had keyboards, melodica, and xylophone, in addition to regular rock instrumentation, Stoltz’s rich vocals evoked memories of Nick Drake and early Leonard Cohen, and the rest of the instruments filled out the corners of the Warfield with shimmering brilliance. The last few songs of the set, no doubt in further tribute to Echo, saw some extended solos and soaring crescendos evocative of a slightly folkier Mogwai, and raised the spirits of the crowd even more as they anticipated the arrival of their heroes.

Will Sergeant, guitarist of Echo & the Bunnymen

Will Sergeant, guitarist of Echo & the Bunnymen

In contrast to the bright colors and crisp spotlights that Stoltz and his quartet had entertained for their visual element, Echo & the Bunnymen’s jungle-canopy-laden stage was lit only by randomly-angled floodlights and a small collection of strobes, giving the look of an otherwordly archaeological dig. It seemed to be top priority for singer Ian McCulloch to be in as much shadow as possible during the performance, whereas Will Sergeant and the rest of the group fared only slightly better with lights placed almost directly underneath them. With the accompanying fog machine, it made for a very obscured look, but it seemed to put McCulloch in an excellent humor; he seemed to be extremely happy to be back in the Bay Area performing two sets in front of the collection of happy San Franciscans. McCulloch introduced the concept for the evening — two sets, with a few songs after each album — and without further ado, the band tore right into “Going Up”, the first number of Crocodiles.

The 'Crocodiles' setlist + encore

The 'Crocodiles' setlist + encore

Despite remaining hidden in darkness and mainly sticking to a small level of movement, Echo & the Bunnymen’s performance was nothing short of excellent. Each of the old songs sounded crisp and clean, with the shimmer of their original ’80/’81 glamor present within the modern-sounding spectrum of sound. The Crocodiles set was full of snarl and grind, upping the sharpness of the original tracks to biting precision, while the Heaven Up Here set included extended solos and outros that carried each piece up into a new dimension. Besides just musical extensions of the songs, McCulloch took several opportunities to address the crowd and tell short tales in the long breakdowns that occupied the longer performances. Encouraging handclaps, asking for accompaniment in singing (the performance of “The Killing Moon” was entirely instrumental, with the audience providing all of the words), and continually expressing his satisfaction and belief that this was the best show of their tour; such behavior might have been unusual for the shadow-clad frontman, but his joy was ecstatically received by his onlookers.

Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen

Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen

I still follow Echo about as loosely as I did a year and a half ago, when I first beheld them performing Ocean Rain, but I could definitely tell that they wanted to step up their game in both their musicianship and the fidelity of their performance, and they rose to the challenge brilliantly. McCulloch’s high spirits were an added blessing that balanced out the band’s borderline-stifling visual obscurity and darkly stoic stage manner, and the soaring riffs crafted by guitarists Will Sergeant and Gordy Goudie helped to fill the rest of the vast expanse of the performance. It will be interesting to see if the group continues the trend of performing their classic works — there is, doubtlessly, a great interest in seeing a live performance of Porcupine or their self-titled fifth record — or if they continue with new material reminiscent of 2009’s The Fountain and see what new directions they will be able to travel with their fine-tuned, magnificently-crafted sound.

The 'Heaven Up Here' setlist + encore

The 'Heaven Up Here' setlist + encore

All photos by Jonathan Pirro.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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