Monday, July 24, 2017

On Chicago's Lakefront, Enjoyable Echoes of an Alternative '80s -- Chicago Concert Review: Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes

Concert Review

Echo & the Bunnymen
Violent Femmes
w/ opening act Ava Mendoza
Huntington Bank Pavilion
at Northerly Island, Chicago 
July 23, 2017
@@@@ (for entire show)

My ongoing mission to see many of the acts I missed--and largely ignored--during their 1980s' heyday continued Sunday night with Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes at Huntington Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island.

This came just a night after I finally saw Blondie (at Ravinia), a few weeks or months after initial forays to catch The Church and Hall & Oates/Tears for Fears and within a few years of first seeing Duran Duran, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Fixx. (The Alarm and A Flock of Seagulls are coming up next month on a Backlot Bash double-bill in Skokie.)

Ava Mendoza, who opened the show with an
instrumental set showcasing fine guitar skills
My musical tastes in the '80s didn't completely suck, as I was already a big fan of The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Bowie, Queen, Zeppelin, etc., got into Springsteen, Petty, Seger & Mellencamp pretty early, loved Cheap Trick, Aerosmith & Van Halen and was heavily into U2, R.E.M., Midnight Oil, The Replacements and Peter Gabriel by my first or second year of college.

I don't even rue liking, and seeing, the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Ratt and Dokken.

But perhaps due to never being prone to unconventional hairstyles or the goth scene or whatever else, I largely resisted The Cure, Depeche Mode--both of whom I've now seen a number of times, but not until about 1998--and the other, primarily British, New Wave acts mentioned above.

It's possible I again have a blindspot when it comes to caring much about modern bands some may find wonderful, but without many new acts to embrace, in middle age I've been more expansively seeking out artists I tended to ignore as a teenager.

Hence, unlike for presumably many in Sunday's crowd, seeing Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes wasn't a nostalgia trip as much as a personal introduction.

Braving a rather ominous sky to reach the non-sheltered venue by the ticketed 6:00pm showtime--fortunately the storm clouds passed over the lake, never to return--my pal Paolo and I had to wait in long lines before the gates even opened.

And when the music started at 7:00pm, a Brazilian Brooklynite named Ava Mendoza played a solo guitar set for half an hour.

Though Mendoza is clearly talented--she subsequently played some songs with the Violent Femmes--her set hadn't been previously announced anywhere I'd seen, and I would've been just as happy for the dual headliners to have gotten started earlier.

At 8:00, four members of the Violent Femmes took the stage, although the roster would double by set's end.

I'm pretty sure I've long owned a Violent Femmes greatest hits collection, and I did some Spotifamiliarizing leading up the show, but my foremost affinity is for five songs.

Four of these hail from the Milwaukee band's 1983 self-titled debut album--"Blister in the Sun," "Kiss Off," "Gone Daddy Gone" and "Add It Up"--with the fifth being "American Music."

Among a 19-song, 70-minute performance, these five tunes were--for me and seemingly many, based on audience reaction--demonstrably the highlights.

Lead singer Gordon Gano--who appears far more likely to be presumed an accountant than a longtime rock star--sounded as vocally strong & unique as ever, and played acoustic/electric guitar, banjo and violin among a similarly dexterous band that included original bassist Brian Ritchie.

But as the Femmes' sound ventures more to bluegrass/folk/country territory than straightforward rock, and largely eschews bar chords and kick drums, the open air makeshift amphitheater didn't make for an idyllic place to best appreciate them.

Beyond the quintet of well-known songs good enough to sound delectable anywhere, tunes like the opening "Memory," "I'm Nothing" and "I Could Be Anything" well made the case for Violent Femmes' formidable renown, but I can't claim to have been relentlessly enthralled throughout the entirety of their time onstage.

I'm glad I finally got to see them, but if I do again it will hopefully be in a theater or otherwise intimate venue.

More so my reason for attending this concert--abetted by a $20 ticket offer from Live Nation--was to see, also for the first time, Echo & the Bunnymen.

The British band, formed in Liverpool in 1978, enjoyed UK and US success in the '80s, but beyond knowing their name I knew none of their music until the 21st century.

And even then, "Lips Like Sugar" was the only song I knew until Spotify simplified an exploration a few years back.

Now I consider them to rank among the Top 5 bands of the British New Wave scene, with singer Ian McCulloch's affected crooning and oblique lyrics nearly as era-defining as The Cure's Robert Smith.

(Last year there was a terrific movie called Sing Street -- now streaming on Netflix -- that imagined a group of Dublin teens in the 1980s trying out various musical and stylistic guises; McCulloch and Echo & the Bunnymen would seem to be clear points of reference.)

As McCulloch prefers to sing shrouded in darkness, it certainly aided Echo's set to begin after sundown.

Playing just a bit longer than the Violent Femmes did, on what turned out to be a beautiful night along the lakefront, McCulloch, original guitarist Will Sergeant and the rest of the touring Bunnymen made tunes like "Rescue," "Seven Seas," "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo," "Never Stop" and "Bring on the Dancing Horses" sound terrific.

Though the supposedly irascible McCulloch made several seemingly amiable, gracious and Chicago-praising comments--very little of which I actually deciphered--I gleaned a somewhat perfunctory "another night, another show playing the same old songs" vibe to the performance that didn't greatly detract, but kept it short of feeling truly special or sensational.

But snippets of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" and other classic songs added punch to Echo's take on "Nothing Lasts Forever" and "Villiers Terrace," with McCulloch & Co. seemingly demonstrating that their influences reached across the Atlantic.

The terrific trio of "The Killing Moon," "The Cutter" and "Lips Like Sugar" seemingly rounded out an enjoyable evening right up against the 11pm curfew, but even with the house lights coming up, McCulloch insisted on bringing the band back for a rendition of the melancholy "Ocean Rain" from Echo & the Bunnymen's excellent 1984 album of the same name.

I've already seen many great concerts in 2017, and while this one won't go down as one of the very best, I'm glad to no longer have missed out on Echo & the Bunnymen or the Violent Femmes.

Add it up any way you want, but while the double bill may not have seemed the most logical pairing, $20 undoubtedly provided a considerable sum of enjoyment to my ears and eyes.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Sounds like a worthwhile investment to me!