Kyle Decker's Blog

Post Punk Echo & The Bunnymen Return To Chicago For A Show At The Riviera Theatre

By Kyle Decker and Photos by Fleurette Estes 
In the Loop Magazine

Post-punk progenitors Echo & The Bunnymen played a packed house at the Riviera Theatre (aka The Riv) in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. While they hit the UK charts a few times in their heyday, the Liverpool band is most well-known on this side of the pond for 1987’s “Lips Like Sugar” and 1984’s “The Killing Moon.” The former is new-wave pop that deviates from the band’s usual sound. The latter is a neo-psychedelic masterpiece millennials likely discovered because of its inclusion on the Donnie Darko soundtrack.

At 8:40 pm smoke began to fill the stage. Backlit by gold and blue lights, the band members were silhouettes as they took their positions, effectively recreating the album cover for the 1985 complication Songs to Learn & Sing as they opened with “Going Up.” There had been a forty-minute wait between the opening act and Echo, so the audience was a little on edge at first. The band was tight throughout, but for the first three songs or so they largely seemed to be going through the motions. However, they found their energy for “The Rescue.” As you can see from the accompanying photos by Fleurette Estes, the band remained silhouetted against the fog and lights, giving them a sense of mystery and cool aloofness. Which is the perfect aesthetic for their dark post-punk sound. Which seems to speak to a wide age range. 

As I looked around at the audience, I saw people my age (late 30s), people my parent’s age (late 60s/early 70s), and people my students’ age (teens). As well as everything in between all that. I saw retirees in button-down shirts standing next to goths in full regalia including elaborate make-up and leather corsets. And they all knew the words. Singer Ian McCulloch even invited the audience to sing along with “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” A song that has somewhat of a Chicagoland connection due to its use in John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink. After that, the band took a fifteen-minute break which seemed to confuse the audience. Several people around me commented on it. But the band came back and quickly won everyone over again with “Show of Strength” and “Over the Wall.”

Naturally, they hung on to “The Killing Moon” until near the end. McCulloch introduced by wryly quipping in his Scouser accent, “This next song is in no way goth.”  Guitarist Will Sergeant’s distinct opening riff followed and the crowd went nuts and joined in singing. Ian McCulloch may have only been 24 when he awoke from a dream with the lines “Fate up against your will/Through the thick and thin” in his head, but those words hit differently being sung by a man who just turned 65. Hell, they hit differently hearing them at 39. Anyone at any age can feel they’ve got “Fate up against their will,” but now McCulloch’s got another 41 years of life experience behind those words. Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but notice that singer Ian McCulloch’s voice seemed ever so slightly raspier. Although, I didn’t see that as a negative. Given the difference in age from when these songs were written, it adds to that juxtaposition. The words take on a new context. What was once said in youthful angst, now carries a world-weariness, and that difference can show in the delivery as well. It gave songs like “Zimbo” an almost bluesy quality. Which, hey, Chicago is the right city for that.

They closed out the second set with a blazingly high-energy version of “The Cutter,” which had been their breakthrough song back in England. For me, that was the highlight of the show. It should come as no surprise that “Lips Like Sugar” was the encore. What was a surprise, though, was the second encore. A hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Ocean’s Rain,” which the audience joined in for much of closed out the night. Overall, the show is what one would expect of a legacy act of Echo and the Bunnymen’s caliber. Influential musicians playing a tight set that occasionally feels like they’re going through the motions. And maybe they are, but it’s not a problem when the motions are this good.

Here’s the setlist, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

  • “Going Up”
  • “All That Jazz”
  • “Flowers”
  • “The Rescue”
  • “Zimbo”
  • “Brussels is Haunted”
  • “Never Stop”
  • “Bring on the Dancing Horses”
  • “Show of Strength”
  • “Over the Wall”
  • “Seven Seas”
  • “Nothing Lasts Forever”
  • “Heads Will Roll”
  • “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo”
  • “The Killing Moon”
  • “The Cutter”
  • “Lips Like Sugar”
  • “Ocean Rain”

I’d be rude to review a show without mentioning the opening act. Via Mardot is a Detroit-based multi-instrumentalist, among which includes a theremin. Most of the songs she did with her band were instrumental. It had a very haunting quality, as theremins do. It got a mixed reaction from the crowd. But honestly, I dug it. It’s not the type of music I’m used to hearing live. The atmospheric nature of it felt like it could be the soundtrack to a movie, haunted house, or video game. I could almost picture myself crawling around a dungeon, looking for treasure. So, if you’re a Dungeon Master trying to find background music for your next D&D campaign, scope out Via Mardot on Bandcamp. That said, for the one song that did involve singing, Via Mardot proved that she has a great voice.

For more on Echo & The Bunnymen, click here
For photos from the show, click here