Rock & pop: Easter with the Bunnymen

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The Independent Culture
Echo and the Bunnymen/PJ Harvey

Improv Theatre, London


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.