Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Echo + The Bunnymen, Violent Femmes concert review: Costa Mesa, Calif.

photo: Bill Alkofer/OC Register
The contrasts between bands at a packed Pacific Amphitheatre on Saturday were literally like night and day.

On one side was Violent Femmes’ eccentric take on folk/jazz/blues/rock, with Gordon Gano’s demented-yet-humorous vocals.

Then there was Echo & The Bunnymen’s mysterious post-punk and neo-psychedelia alongside singer Ian McCulloch’s serious, brooding delivery. One act played in full view (Femmes); the other preferred being obscured in shadows and didn’t allow their images onscreen (Bunnymen).

Both did enjoy their biggest success during the 1980s, were KROQ/106.7 FM regulars, split for a brief period, then reformed again.

Earlier this month, Violent Femmes put out “2 Mics and the Truth,” an excellent live album recorded as the Milwaukee-bred group visited various places to promote the 2016 studio album “We Can Do Anything.” Echo & The Bunnymen released “Meteorites” in ‘14 and the Liverpool, U.K. musicians continue to lure new younger fans, thanks to its classic catalog being used in various films and television shows like “Stranger Things” and “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix.

In Costa Mesa, Echo & The Bunnymen opened the erratic 65-minute, 15-song set with “Going Up,” the leadoff track from its debut LP (1980’s “Crocodiles”). Oddly, that tune was truncated and the band switched to “Rescue,” with co-founder Will Sergeant’s clarion call guitar sounding glorious as ever.

McCulloch struggled vocally and was merely adequate throughout the performance. Still, the exceptional backing musicians (particularly the rhythm section) more than compensated. The fast maelstrom of “Do It Clean” was thrilling and McCulloch added his usual song snippets (Nat King Cole, James Brown). A majestic “Seven Seas” gave way to the slinky “Bedbugs & Ballyhoo” while the frontman puffed on a cigarette. Sergeant’s amazing guitar effects elevated the ominous “Over the Wall.”

Stripping things down, “Nothing Lasts Forever” (top 10 UK single in 1997 originally featuring Liam Gallagher) was unfortunately ignored by the crowd until McCulloch transitioned into Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Later, the dramatic orchestral grandeur of “The Killing Moon” went down a storm.

For the encores, a fierce “Villier’s Terrace” segued into The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” and David Bowie's "The Jean Genie." Finally, the band concluded with the peaceful sway of “Ocean Rain.” Overall, a mixed bag.

photo: Bill Alkofer/OC Register
Violent Femmes made its first appearance here since the venue reopened for concerts in ’03.

Gano, fellow founding member/bassist Brian Ritchie and percussionist John Sparrow delivered a thoroughly enjoyable 75-minute, 20-song set.

During the obscurity “Waiting for a Bus,” Gano sarcastically questioned whether they were actually playing the blues as Blaise Garza blasted a huge contrabass saxophone (Ritchie deadpanned that it was stolen from a film soundtrack studio). 

Then the guys delved into polka for the manic new “I Could Be Anything.” Ritchie introduced signature song “Blister in the Sun” by saying it was “classic alternative, a term I only recently became aware of.”

The energy level was raised several notches and what followed was even stronger: “Kiss Off,” the rollicking call and response singalong “American Music,” a jaunty “I Held Her in My Arms” (featuring more impressive sax work by Garza), xylophone-accented “Gone Daddy Gone,” “Jesus Walking on the Water” (with Gano on violin),” the sprightly hoedown vibe of “Prove My Love” and finally, the pent-up sexual frustration of “Add it Up,” where you could feel the excitement all around.

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register.  

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