Echo & the Bunnymen Bring Quality Brooding to House of Blues

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Echo & the Bunnymen
House of Blues
October 14, 2016

My computer keeps wanting to autocorrect Bunnymen to “Funnymen,” a mistake no sentient human would ever make, least of all an actual fan of Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant’s long-running musical partnership. The Bunnymen may be many things, but a barrel of laughs is not one of them.

Society at large may be content to remember the Bunnymen for various ‘80s soundtracks and the opening scene of Donnie Darko, but the brooding Brits still cast a long enough shadow to nearly fill up House of Blues on a Friday night. It could very well be that Houston’s most stylish Britpop fetishists, and no small amount of actual Brits, crowded into the venue just to hear “The Cutter” and “Lips Like Sugar.” But what elevated the show above mere nostalgia was the interplay between McCulloch and Sergeant, which, although peculiar, was as automatic as it should be for two Liverpool schoolmates who started their band in 1978 — and, for two guys in their mid-fifties, is still pretty dynamic.

Which is funny, because you’d never know it to look at them. Both men’s stagewear Friday was as dark as most of the Bunnymen’s album covers. Unless you were actively looking for him, it would have been easy to miss Sergeant, huddled next to his amp near the edge of the stage, head slung down toward his guitar for most of the show. The strikingly tall McCulloch stayed stock-still at dead center stage all night, save a few brief trips back toward the drums to sip his drink or give some on-the-fly instructions to the other four Bunnymen. He and Sergeant hardly seemed to interact at all, proving either the strength of their unspoken musical bond or just the ease each man felt staying in his own lane.

His eyes obscured by jet-black shades, McCulloch embodied the mysterious rock star both in song and in his banter with the crowd, which those who could penetrate his heavy Scouse accent seemed to find pretty amusing. But his vocals were strong and resonant, not even a little hoarse or garbled, and he was quick to drop in other people’s lyrics at opportune moments, be they James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” or recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” The whole band joined in on a meaty hunk of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”

Sergeant, for his part, is one of rock’s unsung masters of tone and texture, whether unleashing crippling blasts of feedback or runs of fleet-fingered notes that sound like liquid glass. He has a way of teasing the notes out of his guitar, creating magnificent reveries that conveniently make ideal backdrops for McCulloch’s grand flights of melancholy and periodic slips into stream of consciousness; Friday, “Lips Like Sugar” was particularly untethered. But Sergeant can also go for broke with the best of them, as on “Over the Wall,” “Never Stop” or “Do It Clean” — even the titles imparting a desperate need for escape or release.

Sticking close to their foundations, the set list was heaviest with songs from the Bunnymen’s debut,  Crocodiles; songs like “Villiers Terrace” and “Rescue” helped bridge the gap between the bleakness of the band’s post-punk peers and dramatic flourishes of their art-rock influences. Balancing those out were four songs from Ocean Rain, whose softer edges and more upbeat melodies make it a high-water mark for many fans, and the crowd-pleasing gambits of “The Cutter” and “Bring On the Dancing Horses,” where the hooks just keep on coming. Curiously absent was anything from the Bunnymen’s four albums since McCulloch and Sergeant regrouped on 1997’s Evergreen, as was “Nocturnal Me,” the Ocean Rain track that closes out a Season 1 episode of recent Netflix sensation Stranger Things. (That could be a matter of time constraints more than anything else; the band had played “In the Margins,” from 2005’s Siberia, the previous night in Austin.)

But, considering it’s been a while since the Bunnymen last played in Houston, it’s hard to imagine anybody went home after 90 minutes feeling unsatisfied. Friday’s crowd was dotted with T-shirts bearing bands of similar vintage and aesthetic tilt: The Cure, Joy Division and New Order, Psychedelic Furs, the Smiths. Some of those groups are long gone, while others carry on and have graduated to much bigger rooms, but Echo & the Bunnymen can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of them, because on a good night their brightest songs — “Killing Moon,” always and forever — still outshine them all.

Going Up
Do It Clean
All That Jazz
Seven Seas
Bedbugs and Ballyhoo
My Kingdom
All My Colors
Over the Wall
Never Stop
Villiers Terrace (w/Roadhouse Blues)
Bring On the Dancing Horses
Killing Moon
The Cutter

Nothing Lasts Forever
Lips Like Sugar
Ocean Rain

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