There is audience for the same old thing; of course there is – pop music is top heavy with it. But when a band with a legendary reputation offers something new, then fresh perspectives bring fresh faces. There seemed no immediate explanation as to why there was no orchestral accompaniment to Echo and the Bunnymen at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, but if Ian McCulloch and the others were looking for a flat atmosphere of slightly disappointed fans, then they set themselves up a treat.
The Bunnymen’s latest album, The Stars, The Ocean, and The Moon, a rethinking of their greatest tracks stripped back to chamber arrangements and acoustic interpretations, has been critically well-received, as have the shows that have arrived alongside it earlier this year. St David’s Hall, let us not forget, remains one of the premier arenas for orchestras in Europe, and few rock bands really learn to take advantage of the superb acoustics. When a band fails to adapt to the Hall’s awkward welcome for non-classical acts, however, it can amount to, at best, an uncomfortable night of people shifting in their seats to songs that once, when younger, exorcised them. Going on a journey with the idols of your youth would hopefully never end up here, in comfy chairs. Nobody likes to be made to feel old, least of all the band on stage. The dignified shift of an orchestral evening, however, could have been special.
This missed opportunity was confounded by a largely moribund performance by the band. Many bands have hit the same problem with St David’s Hall, and faired much better. McCulloch remains a rock icon, albeit not quite from the premier leagues, whose gobby bravado predates the Liam Gallaghers of this world by over a decade. McCulloch has frequently (and who am I to argue) proclaimed “The Killing Moon” to be the greatest song ever written (he mentions it again tonight halfway through the song’s dipping middle-8 during the encore), but what is less on display here is his career-long assertion that his band are the best in the world. Okay, so most of the original line-up are now of to do other things, and the setting doesn’t help, but for most of the evening, to a seated audience of mainly original fans in various stages of aging, the Bunnymen are lacklustre.
There are good outings for “The Cutter”, “Rescue” and “Bring on the Dancing Horses” that also serve to remind that there really was a time when McCulloch had substance to back up those claims. But even here the songs seem confined to a prism, the light and energy reflecting back in on itself and never out into the auditorium, and certainly not to the musicians. McCulloch does his thing – imperious, be-shaded, a statue at the gates of rock n roll Valhalla – but behind him is a group of session players going through the motions. The last twenty minutes or so, they seem to step up a gear, but this is mostly a band someway less than up for it, playing a gig presenting much less than was offered, in entirely the wrong venue.