Echo and the Bunnymen @ Turner Hall Ballroom
Sept. 15, 2016
History hasn’t rendered a final verdict on Echo and the Bunnymen yet. During the band’s nearly flawless four-record run in the early ’80s, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that they could have become one of the biggest bands in the world—a better, edgier U2. Then they fell out of fashion and the world seemed to forget about them. The post-punk revival and a helpful placement on the Donnie Darko soundtrack made the band a hip touchstone once again in the early ’00s. But that halo eventually dimmed as well and now more than ever, the band seems like relics of the past, a forgotten generation’s outmoded idea of cool. So what will their legacy be? Will they be remembered as one of the great rock bands of their time, or merely as a cult act?
The band’s Thursday night show at Turner Hall Ballroom, their first Milwaukee appearance in more than 30 years, underscored the band’s predicament. The sold-out crowd testified to the passion the Bunnymen still inspire, but the age of the crowd—almost entirely graying Gen Xers—evidenced that their music hasn’t been passed down to new listeners the way The Cure’s and The Smiths’ has.
That’s unfortunate, but at this late stage in the game, Echo and the Bunnymen probably aren’t going to win many fans with their live show anyway. The band, now down to singer Ian McCulloch (wearing, as always, his black sunglasses) and guitarist Will Sergeant (a killer player but never much of a showman), plus some ringers, remains sharp, but they’re hardly the hungry young performers they were in their heyday. And while McCulloch’s voice still cuts deeply, decades of smoking have robbed it of some of its authority. That voice used to be one of the great wonders of the world. He mustered a convincing snarl on a generous handful of songs from the band’s 1980 debut Crocodiles, but he no longer sounds capable of parting oceans.
Though the band has put out some fairly decent reunion albums over the years, they wisely mostly stuck to the classics, songs from those first four albums plus their Molly Ringwald-era hits “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and “Lips Like Sugar,” which inspired hearty crowd sing-alongs. (“When we tried to do that in New York it sounded like shite,” McCulloch complimented the crowd, in one of his rare between-song remarks). So basically the Bunnymen spent the show doing the same thing they’ve been doing since reuniting nearly 20 years: not embarrassing themselves. It’s not glamorous, but it’s not the worst strategy for a band that seems to understand their greatest achievements are well behind them. They’ve already made some remarkable contributions to music. Whether time rewards them with the recognition they deserve is beyond their control.