Echo and the Bunnymen at the Royal Albert Hall review *****

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Echo and The Bunnymen: The Stars, the Ocean and the Moon

Royal Albert Hall, 1st June 2018

  • Rescue
  • Villiers Terrace – (Roadhouse Blues)
  • All That Jazz
  • Stormy Weather
  • The Somnabulist
  • Nothing Lasts Forever
  • All My Colours
  • Angels and Devils
  • Bedbugs and Ballyhoo
  • Lips Like Sugar
  • Rust
  • In The Margins
  • Bring On the Dancing Horses
  • Seven Seas
  • How Far?
  • The Cutter
  • The Killing Moon
  • Never Stop
  • Ocean Rain

No real point if reading this if you want an unbiased opinion of EATB’s latest gig at the Royal Albert Hall. In their pomp they were, in the Tourist’s humble opinion, the greatest band of all time. And their pomp was so transcendently gorgeous that they still are. Even when they’re not if you get my meaning. And, the last few times, they haven’t been. Yet the songs still make up for it. Well most of them do.

I am delighted to report though that this time they were, actually, in pretty fine fettle and, to their credit, seemed to have got over the disappointment of the Champions League defeat. Mac’s voice seems to have settled down a bit. The soaring, crooning pyrotechnic baritone of the early days is long gone but so, it seems, is the gravelly booze and fags croak of more recent years. He still picks pointless verbal fights with innocent punters and mumbles incoherently in Scouse but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Will doesn’t get up to much as ever but can still turn on the licks when required. The rhythm section now has a bit of spring in its step; none of the lumpen pedestrian plod of the early noughties. Stephen Brennan on bass is no Les, but he now has his own way with the classics even if he can’t recreate the Pattinson trademark loops, and Nick Kilroe handling the sticks is more comfortable than any of his predecessors, especially in the middle period stuff. No-one has ever drummed like Pete GRHS, and I mean ever, so I will, all my life, remain bereft but best not to dwell on it. Jez Wing on keyboards is a fine musician and the Cairn String Quartet provided string arrangements as sympathetic as any I have ever heard.

The tour is billed as EATB with strings so it was as well that the sound mix here didn’t completely leave the strings high and dry as is so often the case. EATB could play Crocodiles and Heaven up Here back to back as loud as you like and I would, literally die and go to heaven, but any subsequent arrangements, the Ocean Rain material and the few decent songs from the grey album, Evergreen and WAYGTDWYL need a bit more care and attention. The addition of Kelley Stoltz’s guitar made a big difference vs previous incarnations though for this material.

The Albert Hall, with its imposing grandeur, suits the lads, as anyone who remembers the Ocean Rain revival, will know and the light show was spot on. Now then I always have an uneasy relationship with a EATB audience these days. A) it is old(ish) reminding me of me own mortality. B) there are wall-to-wall middle-aged couples, with a smattering of young ‘uns, making us single saddo blokes stand out. The SO has done her fair share of manoeuvres putting up with EATB (and other post punk legends) and no longer feels sorry for me, so she’s a no, and other chums literally couldn’t be less interested. C) There are way too many people only there for the “hits”, Cutter, OR and the post OR singles from the grey album. There are enough “first three album”diehards/”occasionally they’ve still got it” benefit of the doubters, like me but it still makes for a strange experience as the buzz focuses on stuff that, whisper it, isn’t really all that good (Bedbugs and Ballyhoo/Bring on the Dancing Horses being the worst offenders). When I say not that good I actually mean it is brilliant just not anywhere near Bunny sublimity.

So, dropping the sanctimonious “I was there from the start”, “it was all downhill from Porcupine” pose, what were the highlights I hear you ask. Well obviously the three openers, with the Doors tribute, from Crocodiles, the standard intro give or take. In an ideal world I’d open with Going Up and squeeze Do it Clean and Simple Stuff into the list but I get that a couple of near sixty year olds trotting out an album from 40 years ago might not seem cutting edge. BUT Crocodiles was, and still is, since it takes the best of post punk rhythms, with a bit of punkish attitude, lays on top Mac’s most personal lyrics (the low rent Homeric epic poetry was leavened with the everyday), most of Will’s best melodies ever and filters this through a history lesson of their coolest ever predecessors, Velvet Underground, Doors, Television, Bowie, Modern Lovers, and, for Mac at least, Scott Walker. Many have followed Crocodiles, none have bettered.

Still, even then, Heaven Up Here is the perfect Bunny. album Sadly all you get nowadays is the stripped bare version of All My Colours, which, lovely as it is, is no substitute for the thumping Zimbo/ original, or previous arrangements, and means nothing from Side One of the original album, the greatest side one of all time, period as you Yanks say, and no Disease or Turquoise Days. Just one of Show of Strength, Over the Wall or With a Hip would be a start. Broke My Neck as long they cared to play it, a life enhancer, but the sad fact is they can’t play any of them now. So none appears. Boo hoo.

So the Tourist has to sit tight before closing his eyes for Angels and Devils, Rust, of course, and yes since I am not a complete poseur, Cutter, a stunning Never Stop and an exquisite Ocean Rain, the last two as encores. And this Sinatra-esque version of Killing Moon is, just maybe, about the most emotionally intense ever. I would still pay good money to hear any of Clay, Back of Love, Higher Hell or King of Kings, Burn For Me, Everything Kills You, Scissors in the Sand, Shroud of Turin or Market Town, but I don’t get a vote and they have been playing this set moreorless for a decade now. I’d even welcome a bit of the Electrafixion experiment but I am probably alone in that.

As for the new songs, well I will have to wait for the new album to decide. Not possible on one listening with my crappy ears and all those people milling around. The Stars. the Ocean and the Moon seems a worthy title given that these three words alone make up probably half of Mac’s lyrical output and the album will mostly rehash and pimp up the classics above with the strings on show. Still if you are want wordplay, punning, sarcasm, heroic, monumental, natural, grand, doomy etc, etc then Big Lips and Floppy Fringe are still your men. And when you are a slightly odd, though by no means unpopular, late teenager THESE LYRICS MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE SPECIAL. They still do decades later. Though true enlightenment only comes with the original line-up and the panoramic production of the first three, OK four, albums.

Still best gig I’ve been to for a couple of years, excepting Wire, and partly because Dave Gedge hasn’t recently volunteered the Wedding Present back catalogue, and MES (tears welling up) wasn’t on top form for the last couple of Fall outings. On that note a reminder that the only rock ‘n’ roll heroes are a) the ones that deliberately f*ck it all up and thereby never go near a stadium and b) have a Peel Session. EATB fit that bill. Like a glove.

 

 

Scythians exhibition at the British Museum ****

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Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

British Museum, 2nd November 2017

I have been bowled over by most of the recent exhibitions I have seen at the British Museum, covering the history of Sicily, the art of South Africa, US modernist art printmaking, (The American Dream at the British Museum review ****), British Watercolour art (British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review ****) and the culture of the Celts. I am also, as the preponderance of glowing “reviews” on this blog testifies, pretty easily pleased. I like to think I have discerning taste in what I choose to see and am open-minded. The reality is I am childishly indiscriminate. 

So based on past experience and the reviews I was looking forward to this exhibition. I dredged up what I knew about the Scythians from my early teens as a speccy, bookish, solitary swot who had a brief fascination with ancient history (yes I did play wargames, on boards, before we have computers kids). Good with horses, large empire ranging over big chunks of Northern Asia, pointy hats, gold. I remember I quite liked the idea of them though I might have got confused with Parthians. Mind you so did Kit Marlowe whose Timburlaine the Great is portrayed as Scythian when he was obvs Turkic-Mongolian.

Anyway turns out Siberia was their manor. It also turns out that Siberia is not the snowy tundra, forests, god-forsaken Soviet compounds and mining desolation of popular imagination. At least not when the Scythians were in charge from 900 BCE to 200 BCE. They were nomadic yes, old Siberia wasn’t that hospitable, but they had a rich culture, with fancy threads (squirrel coat anyone?) and luxury tombs (kurgans), and they were a match for anyone else on the planet when it came to art fashioned from gold. especially when that art was based on animals. And especially when those animals were their beloved horses. You know when someone is said to be a bit “horsey, in that they are so keen on Dobbin. Well these Scythians were pretty much indistinguishable from their clippety-cloppety friends. They were even buried with them. They were also very handy with bow and arrow. from atop their horse. Lethal.

They were, even at their territorial height, a loose confederation of peoples and tribes, with Western and Eastern arms, with no state apparatus as such, primarily defined by their Greek and Persian neighbours. In one of the more fascinating insights from the exhibition though, they could trade at scale, in goods, grain and, it seems, people. It seemed they acted as the trading glue between Greece, Persia, India and China who all went on to bigger and better things. In fact it seems that, by around 500 BCE, these Scythian lads may have had a capital in Ukraine bigger than any other settlement anywhere in the world at that time.

They were also not shy of getting stuck into Middle Eastern affairs, controlling parts of modern Iran, knocking on the door of Egypt and fighting with the Assyrians and the first Achaemenid Empire (that’s the Persians to you and me). Whilst this is described by the exhibition I am not sure that the warring history of these people is fully brought to life. Nor therefore is the way in which in the Ancient, and even Early Medieval, worlds the “Scythian” came to symbolise all warlike, Barbarian outsiders. That’s Greek propaganda for you. Old Shakespeare has a Scythian nibbling on his kids in King Lear. Stravinsky had them writhing around in The Rite of Spring, probably the most important piece of music in Western culture.

What are undeniably fascinating though are the remnants of Scythian culture that do survive precisely because of chilly places they frequented. Weapons, saddles and harnesses, fabrics, clothing, a giant coffin, some cheese and, in eye-catching fashion, bits of tattooed skin and a bashed in head, have survived through freezing, (I got a bit lost on the exact science of preservation). To add to the alarm it seems sacrifice, a lot of booze and a bit of reefer played a big role in Scythian culture. They even, in a Pythonesque twist, seemed to wear false beards. These artefacts, together with the metalwork, largely in gold, and with clear links to craftsmanship in China, India and Greece, are the highlight of the exhibition. I think a majority of the most interesting exhibits come courtesy of the State Historical Museum in Moscow so Спасибо. We see how carefully Russia’s past rulers have treasured these objects, once they realised they came from their own predecessors.

Eventually these mighty warriors got battered by Macedonians and old rivals the Sarmatians in the West (and eventually subsumed into the Slavic world), and, in the East, by various nomadic sorts so that they ended up in the bits of what is now North West China that no-one else cared about. Always the way. Mighty nation goes downhill and disappears (though rarely self-inflicted through arrogant exceptionalism writ large by facile plebiscite).

So another piece of stunning scholarship, adept curating and generous lending from those flipping “experts” here and in Russia. A leisurely couple of hours is all it takes to bring to life an entire world which, at its peak, was the largest, and one of the most important, in the world. I would have liked just a little on how the “Scythian” impacted contemporary and later culture but I guess the team rightly, didn’t want to detract from the objects. Makes sense if you’ve got a skull with an axe hole in it.

The exhibition runs until January 14th. Perfect material for a Christmas family outing I would have thought.