The big milestone of gig No. 1,000 is reached! And it seemed only fitting that the hosts of this monumental occasion were to be Echo And The Bunnymen, hosts of my gig No. 2 back in December 1981 in this very town, and my first real rock obsession as my late-teen musical tastes morphed from formulaic punk rock to the more emotive and individual post-punk early 80’s slew of bands, this movement being encapsulated by my love for the drama, epic sweeping majesty and glacial cool of The Bunnymen, the band who were to become my “home team”, the band against which, subconsciously or not, all others have been measured (and most found wanting…). Tonight also represented the 15th time of asking overall for The Bunnymen, and it also only seemed fitting that joining me for tonight, following a bit of last-minute grandma sleepover jiggery pokery, is my dear lady wife Rachel, for our own 376th gig together!
After dropping the kids off, we traversed a sunny beat route to Oxford, parking after a short wait in the busy Tesco car park, then popping in the Bullingdon for a facility usage, which actually proved unnecessary; the huge queue we’d spotted outside the O2 was in fact for the upstairs Sticky Fingers gig, and we walked straight in to the early-doors deserted downstairs venue! A short wait then for support The Probes, on at 8; a painfully young looking quartet in a trippy psych-pop headspace, their hazy, summery La’s/ Byrds opener segued into a faster, metronomic 60’s B Movie car chase instrumental which undulated and meandered but ultimately wore on the patience somewhat throughout its’ prodigious length. This set the tone for their set; each song (or part-song) melded into the next, with an occasional rhythmic bar or vignette which was pleasant enough, but they’d then stretch it out ad nauseum, mistaking interminable repetition for absorbing rhythm. They eventually closed out their 40 minute set, during which they might have played 3 songs, might have played 9, or any number in between… who knows?
An entertaining chat with an old Bunnyfan with tinnitus (“who were they? The Probes? I’d rather be anally probed than listen to that lot again!”), before we took a wander down the front, stage right as the place filled up good and proper. Sparse early doors, but it was old school hot and heaving just before showtime… which surprisingly came exactly as scheduled at 9.15, the usual Gregorian chanting heralding The Bunnymen onstage in short order. And in no mood to fuck about; straight into opener “Going Up”, the eerie opening building to a crescendo before Mac’s voice chimed in, immediately sounding good, clear, decisive even! “Thanks for coming, Oxford – we like it here!” announced The Voice, before a surprising fan favourite “Heads Will Roll”, Mac gunning for the high notes in the chorus with vim and determination. On it tonight!
Thus was the case; The Bunnymen were simply brilliant tonight, possibly as good as I’ve seen them since their reunion, the band musically tough and tight, with Will’s intricate guitar play weaving a haunting and evocative spell… and then we had Mac…! Let’s face it, Echo And The Bunnymen stand and fall these days on whether vocalist and Head Bunny Ian McCulloch is up for it, and tonight I’m happy to report he was on top form, totally engaged in the performance, in playful, flippant mood in his banter and exchanges with the audience (myself included – more on that later!), and the voice, whilst a little rasping and inevitably lacking some of the soaring top-end of his youthful pomp, sounded excellent, doing full justice to those soaring choruses when required. The strident strobe and drumbeat drama of “All That Jazz” led into the Velvet Underground-esque monotone rhythm of deliciously obscure “B” side “Angels And Devils”, and the subsequent “Do It Clean” was superb, massive and epic, Mac smuggling in a “Sex Machine” vignette.
“Are you all from Oxford?” Mac asked, and I, from my now centre stage spot, couldn’t resist shouting out, “Swindon!” to which the great man retorted, “Swindon? Aye, I’ve been there… well, to the outskirts…!” A couple of mid-set ballads (including “In The Margins”, which elicited a comment of “what’s next? Bloody ‘ell, not done this one in ages,” from Mac) slowed the pace and enabled us to catch our breath, as the packed room was by now uncomfortably hot and sweaty, Mac responding to a punter’s request by ordering, “turn the fans on, you dozy bastards!” As he spake, so shall it be, the joyous subsequent singalong for “Rescue” being accompanied by a welcome blast of cool air, and by Mac’s one-note guitar riffery, to a friendly ribbing from this knowledgeable crowd.
An eerie, Doors-like organ embellished a creepy-crawly “Bedbugs And Ballyhoo”, before a singalong “Seven Seas” prompted Mac to remark, “I tell [audiences] to shut up normally but you sound good!” then warning us, “don’t overdo it – my brother went to Cambridge, it’s miles better than this place!” before conducting the singalong to “Bring On The Dancing Horses”. A reverential hush however greeted “The Killing Moon”, introduced by Mac as, “I think… the greatest song ever written,” the stripped back, haunting and hushed rendition accentuating a sublime vocal reading and almost – almost! – living up to the hype.