tue 13/04/2021

Ian McCulloch, St Pauls Arts Centre, Worthing | reviews, news & interviews

Ian McCulloch, St Pauls Arts Centre, Worthing

Ian McCulloch, St Pauls Arts Centre, Worthing

Echo & the Bunnymen singer successfully retrieves a concert initially marred by his own unpleasantness

Mac the mouth gives it some moodiness

Things do not start well. Ian McCulloch, in trademark shades, apparently not aged a jot since Echo & the Bunnymen’s 1980s glory days, hits the stage in an offensive strop. He is performing a solo acoustic set from a chair. Beside him on a table sit a glass of water, a glass of milk and another glass with – at a guess – vodka and cranberry juice. He has the demeanour of a diva who’s been having a “party” in their changing room. Milk is good for settling an acid stomach.

Things do not start well. Ian McCulloch, in trademark shades, apparently not aged a jot since Echo & the Bunnymen’s 1980s glory days, hits the stage in an offensive strop. He is performing a solo acoustic set from a chair. Beside him on a table sit a glass of water, a glass of milk and another glass with – at a guess – vodka and cranberry juice. He has the demeanour of a diva who’s been having a “party” in their changing room. Milk is good for settling an acid stomach.

During his opening numbers, “Rescue” and “Villiers Terrace” from the Bunnymen’s debut album Crocodiles, he repeatedly berates his surroundings, tyrannically insults the soundman, moans bitchily about the clink of glasses, calls an audience member “knobhead”, all without any hint of geniality or good humour. It seems he’d rather be anywhere else but here and there’s a rumble of boos and a wave of catcalls. A smattering of people leave the venue.

He disentangles those songs from their jangle-pop origins and showcases the longing, lyrical songwriting

Maybe MCulloch is emulating his notoriously grouchy hero Lou Reed, a man he refers to later as “my coach”. He certainly pays plenty of tribute, singing three of Reed’s songs – “Pale Blue Eyes”, “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Walk On the Wild Side” – which he and the audience both greet as the timeless treasures they are. Whatever his issues and despite occasional asides whose incomprehensibility is not entirely down to his strong Liverpudlian accent, within an hour and a half he retrieves the situation magnificently.

As a young teenager in the early Eighties I never quite understood why Ian McCulloch thought his band, Echo & the Bunnymen, were by far the best in the world. Tonight, however, he disentangles those songs from their jangle-pop origins and showcases the longing, lyrical songwriting at their heart. Back then, three decades ago, he was always in sunglasses, wearing an arrogant Scouse perma-sneer. He maintained this rock star loftiness even when it was clear he’d missed the express train to lucrative US pop stardom, ridden so successfully by peers such as U2, Simple Minds and The Cure.

He still has that innate arrogance as we find him here in a beautiful converted church on the south coast, silhouetted in gloomy blue lighting beneath a large crucifixion alter-piece and a row of brass lamps. We don’t need performers to be nice. There’s too much nice around; too many media-trained beige-brained stars. An evening with McCulloch, by contrast, is a journey with a messy, spiky, intriguing individual whom we start by disliking intensely but, as times passes, he and we both slowly thaw.

The first positive sign is when he cheers up slightly as the crowd sings along to the chorus of the hit “Seven Seas”. He then begins the 1984 album title track “Ocean Rain” upon request. The forlorn song makes the man who requested it cry. McCulloch finds the guitar work too tricky but says he will return to it later. He draws rich emotion from “The Game” and “The Disease”, the latter vitriolically dedicated to Margaret Thatcher, and by the time he reaches the Bunnymen’s 1997 comeback single, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, he’s in his stride, he’s enjoying himself, and he pours his lovely, cracked voice over the elegiac lyrics.

As the night progresses the audience sing along and the applause grows louder with each number, whether obscure Bunnymen gems such as “Rust” or more famous tunes such as “Lips Like Sugar”. At the close of his encore McCulloch returns, as promised, to “Ocean Rain”, as if it were the evening’s final challenge. One lyric – “My hurricanes have brought down this ocean rain to bathe me again” – seems to offer appropriate symbolism for tonight’s show, wherein this abrasive, difficult singer eventually salved his antagonistic nature by giving us his music.

Overleaf: Watch Ian McCulloch play "Nothing Lasts Forever" acoustically on Sky Arts Songbook

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