Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Return of the Mac



Much as - you may have spotted - we love the brutalist school, we're prepared to grant you that the Royal Albert Hall off Kensington Gore is on any measure a stunning edifice, inside and out. Opened in 1871 as a tribute to the consort Queen Vic still pined for, it's also been a perfect setting since the Forties for the Proms, still the most skilfully-curated and rewarding concert series in the country. This year, we gotta furnish particular props to Pyotr Ilyich, as usual ('specially the LSO strutting the divine Sleeping Beauty), Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Haydn, Schoenberg and the wonderful Brahms (who we're newly rediscovering), and, of course, the inspired pairing of the late K-H Stockhausen's "Punkte" with more conventionally elegant works from Schubert and Ludwig vB: judging by the horrified reaction of some punters close to us, there needs to be a lot more of that kind of programming in British classical music. As ever, the only thing that let the Proms down was the Last night, when most of Britain's lunatics hold a bizarre rally to the strains of Edward Elgar, and everyone watching highlights on the news at home somewhat forgivably believes the lie that classical music is only for snobs and / or mentalists.

But it's not all over in terms of musical bounty within the walls of this magnificent redbrick amphitheatre. Because a clutch of days later, on one of the first truly crisp autumn nights of the year Echo and the Bunnymen, no less, take to the stage to help dispel those post-Proms blues. Will Sergeant, adopting the head-down, nr-motionless pose he will retain all evening, strikes up those opening notes of "Rescue". And beside him, an equally static Mac the Mouth prepares to unleash what a few thousand not-so-youngs in the audience are waiting for - THE VOICE.

This is largely a greatest hits set, as is confirmed when "Villiers Terrace" swiftly follows on "Rescue"'s heels, although the interpolation of one newie, "Stormy Weather" (a vaguely Mary Chain-esque anthemic / romantic thing) doesn't do the damage you might fear. Otherwise, the hits rain down ("The Back Of Love", "All That Jazz", "Never Stop"...), dry ice at times virtually envelops the stage, and Echo prove that they always had THE SONGS. Of the older guard, "Bring On The Dancing Horses", works marvellously in these surroundings, the microphone pregnant with echo delay; and "Nothing Lasts Forever" retains the majesty of the single version, McCulloch's voice perfectly suited to enunciating the weariness of growing old, the need to acknowledge how times change and things get left behind (Queen Victoria, still heartbroken when she dedicated this place ten years on from Albert's death, would have known how he felt). Yes, "All My Colours" seems to have got a little lost in time, and as for "Lips Like Sugar", well we've simply never really liked it: but for the most part, this is a set of borderline-immodest showing off, and fantastic with it. The band's puissance is most trenchantly demonstrated by the fact that they finish with "The Cutter" - what a song, what a song (shakes head in awe and wonderment, cradles the original 7", half-dissolves into teary lament for days when this kind of thing would unite the cool kids and the playground kids and sell tens of thousands of copies, on real vinyl and everything). A sublime way to finish.

Except, of course, that it's only half-time. For after a respectful interval, the band re-emerge, kitted out all dapper-like in suits and ties (apart from the Mouth, who goes for a more traditional trenchcoat look to accompany the permafixed sunglasses). But this time, they're accompanied by a sixteen-piece orchestra. And, after Mac notes that Liverpool FC have just stung Marseilles 2-1, they only go and play the "Ocean Rain" album in its entirety, the strings and the acoustics of this place giving it a depth, dimension and identity that we never quite got from our original - gulp - cassette, or even subsequent remasterings (you will be unsurprised to learn that it is about to get yet another digital re-release).

It's hard to recall an album-length's worth of songs having ever whoooshed past quite so quickly, but then if you've an album that kicks off with the >epic pop thrill< of "Silver" and then hurtles through crowdpleasers like "Thorn of Crowns" and "Seven Seas" before the title track delivers a final, lingering kiss, then there's reason to expect it can only seem an all-too brief treat. "The Killing Moon" gets prefaced by a typically blunt "This is the greatest song of all time" from Mac (no longer borderline immodest, then), but in the few minutes that followed, anyone of us under the Hall's cavernous roof would have been hard-pressed to disagree. All the while, screens flick up pictures of the band at their very youngest, emphasising the "homecoming" nature of this gig (it may not be Liverpool, but it is the place they first previewed many of the tunes on "Ocean Rain" a quarter-century back).

There's little hanging around to enjoy the moment once that final song triumphantly finishes: the band stride purposefully off, leaving conductor Rupert Christie and his musicians to self-consciously shuffle themselves and their instruments from the stage. And to cop some deserved applause.

As cool, understated and full of incoherent mumbles as McCulloch so doggedly was for much of the evening, you could tell that he was putting his all into this performance. Veterans they may be, but this was a venue, and an occasion, made for albums, and bands, like this one.