PHILADELPHIA, PA—Having decided not to drive for fear of getting a parking ticket or having my stereo stolen, I walked for about 40 minutes from my friend’s apartment to the venue, and missed half of the opening band’s set. I got my credentials at the box office, took a little peek inside, and sat out front for a while, fine-tuning my camera settings and people-watching. Fellow late coming fans of all ages were lining up and heading in, all of them with the same, ‘I am going to have my brains melted tonight,’ expression. I felt like the only first-timer in the crowd, but I could tell from the people around me that I was not about to be let down by the band’s 33-year reputation.
The Trocadero is a non-smoking venue but Ian McCulloch took the stage with the rest of Echo & The Bunnymen, lit cigarette in hand, and defiantly chain-smoked throughout their entire set. I’m not sure the Troc staff even noticed, what with their fog machines and dark backlighting; everything from the barriers back looked like some kind of opium-induced, dreamlike, post-punk nightmare. The people got what they paid for.
The Crocodiles & Heaven Up Here Tour had been a big hit across the pond, and judging by the packed venue it was doing just as well in America. When I had spoken to Ian for a previous Aquarian feature, he mentioned how much they enjoyed visiting and playing in the U.S. It certainly showed.
Without any hesitation they dove right into “Going Up,” the first track off of 1980’s Crocodiles, which they played through flawlessly and without seeming to tire. Before the first few notes of “Pictures On My Wall,” Ian fondly, and with a hint of what seemed like nostalgia, noted, “This song was our first single. It’s a good song.”
And that’s pretty much the last decipherable sentence that left his lips. Aside from the words ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck,’ a few energetic thank yous and a brief something-or-other about the Pope, my guess was as good as anyone else’s as to what he was saying when he wasn’t singing.
“Do you have any idea what he just said?” a man asked me after they played “Happy Death Men.” I just shrugged, and he laughed. It didn’t really matter to either of us to begin with, we were just stoked to be there, to be experiencing the first two Echo records live and in their entirety, to be a part of the chemistry between band and audience and between McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant, still strong and still wild after all these years.
By the time they finished with Crocodiles, I figured they’d head backstage for a break or intermission, but no. They went right into “Show of Strength” from 1981’s Heaven Up Here, and didn’t stop for more than a minute or so between any two songs. They played straight through to “All I Want,” and still didn’t seem tired. And I don’t just mean body-tired; they never once faltered on instrumentation, and Ian’s voice never once wavered or cracked. It was stunning. All I could think while watching them was, “Goddamn, they really make this look easy.” They must really be taking good care of themselves, which I imagine is not an easy task after performing two records and then some every night.
The band took a very brief intermission after finishing out Heaven Up Here, then returned for their ‘encore.’ I use that term lightly here because a typical encore is a song or two, tops. What they did was more like another set; six songs that weren’t released on either albums, but ones that they wanted to play anyway. Everyone went nuts for “Lips Like Sugar” and “The Killing Moon.” If you were standing still at any point during their performance, I will just assume it’s because you have no soul. They finished their set with “The Cutter,” and I can honestly say it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.
Thirty-three years is a long time, but it’s frighteningly apparent that Echo & The Bunnymen haven’t lost it, that they don’t plan to lose it and that they will never under any circumstances willingly give it up. If years from now you were to pry the mic stand from Ian McCulloch’s cold, near-death fingers, he would still write a song about it. And it would still be a hit.