Rock & pop: Easter with the Bunnymen

Echo and the Bunnymen/PJ Harvey

Improv Theatre, London

Wilco

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Ben Lee

Improv Theatre, London

Not an appropriate question for Easter Sunday, perhaps, but is John Peel the new Messiah? Somebody seems to think so. However early you do your Christmas shopping, Jesus's birthday parties don't get going five months before the event, whereas a series of special concerts is already underway to celebrate the DJ's turning 60 ... and his birthday isn't until the end of August. On Thursday, a photo of his benign, bearded face covered half a wall of the Improv Theatre, and the miraculous double bill featured Echo and the Bunnymen and PJ Harvey.

The Bunnymen obviously believe that birthdays are a time for looking back on life. They played "Rescue" and "The Killing Moon" and "The Back of Love" and "The Cutter", and the nostalgic audience cheered its gratitude. However, to milk the motif to the last drop, a birthday is one time when you can't forget how old people are, and the Bunnymen are not quite evergreen. Ian McCulloch's vocals, never very stable in concert, were toppled by the sound balance, and Will Sergeant was wise to keep his face hidden beneath a chin-length fringe. And they're the only two original members left in the band. For Thursday's show they were joined by a bassist, a keyboard player, a second guitarist and a clattering, intrusive drummer. No wonder they didn't sound like the Bunnymen of yore.

The frustrating thing is that they shouldn't even have tried. On Monday, the Bunnymen release their second album since they reformed in 1996, and it proves there's no need to dwell on past glories. Fitting just nine tracks into 38 minutes, What Are You Going To With Your Life? (London) is the work of a band who were determined not to include any song that wasn't one of their best.

Just as Nick Cave slowed the pace and lowered the mask on his last album, the Bunnymen have grown more reflective on this one. Their new music is understated, with an emphasis on acoustic instruments and sensitive crooning. McCulloch has always fancied himself as a Sinatra rather than a yelping trenchcoat. Here, perhaps because he turns 40 in a month, he takes the album's name to heart and has the courage of his convictions. Two decades after they formed and one decade after they split up, Echo and the Bunnymen have made an album that matches their finest work, but doesn't struggle to echo it.

To return to the concert, PJ Harvey was concentrating on the past, too, thumbing right to the back page of her back catalogue. Sadly, she wasn't surrounded by the musicians who appeared on those tracks. Instead, she played guitar and John Parish alternated between guitar and drums, whereas her theatrical presence is more dramatic when a full, creative band is furnishing the scenery.

Still, Harvey's frightening intelligence shines through all her performances. She is a woman possessed by the Hardyesque tragic heroines in her songs. She could be a captivating actress - although, as I say, she's better suited to ensemble pieces than monologues.

This week's theme seems to be potentially wonderful artistes failing to live up to my great expectations. The other two concerts I went to were promoting two of this year's best albums, and neither gig matched either record. Wilco simply didn't play enough songs from their new LP, Summerteeth (Reprise), and they hadn't brought along enough instruments to do those songs justice. Summerteeth sounds like the Beatles and the Beach Boys on a trip to the Deep South. Live, it's only Jeff Tweedy's tired and defeated voice that elevates Wilco above any skilfully clip- clopping folk-pop band.

Before he founded Wilco, Tweedy was one of the two leaders of Uncle Tupelo, and I can only assume that the other one was the natural performer of the band, while Tweedy was the shy one in the background. He never closes the gap between the band and the politely nodding audience, either metaphorically or - thanks to a barricade of speakers - literally. Maybe this barricade was there for our safety. When Wilco last played in London, Tweedy was not in the brightest of moods. "I remember I said something like, `I'm gonna come out there and wipe my Yankee ass on your Limey heads,' " he grinned on Saturday. Nice as the concert was, I couldn't help thinking that the previous one must have been more of an occasion.

Ben Lee's performance was quite a contrast. Not only did he put his back into it, he nearly put his back out, too. He kept twisting round the microphone stand so he could sing facing in a different direction, and then pulling down the stand to waist level, so he had to bend double to get his mouth to the microphone.

It could be because he's only 20, or because he looks as if he's only 12, but these antics came across as annoyingly affected, and they only detracted from the stylish alt-pop of his latest album, Breathing Tornadoes (Grand Royal). Two verses into a solo rendition of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's All Right", Lee breaks off to announce that it's such a fucking brilliant song, he feels so fucking unworthy. Again, this seems less like humility than posing. When I scraped my way through Bartk in the school orchestra, I never put down my viola and told the assembly that I wasn't worthy.

Echo & the Bunnymen start a UK tour at Newcastle Mayfair (0191 232 3109), 11 April.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'