I've seen Echo & the Bunnymen multiple times over the last fifteen years, and they are probably one of the most unpredictable live acts I've encountered. Some nights you'll go, and it's one of the most blistering music sets you've seen in your life; other nights, it's about as dull as doing other people's dishes.
The new DVD, Echo & the Bunnymen - Dancing Horses, captures one of the good nights. Recorded in November 2005 at London's Shepherds Bush Empire, the Bunnymen deliver a tight set of songs old and new, including four from their most recent album, Siberia, itself a must for Bunnymen fans. Old favorites like "Never Stop" and "Rescue" naturally shine bright above the rest as far as manic pop thrills are concerned, but newbies like "Scissors in the Sand" have a skuzzy rock quality that, for me, defines the current state of affairs in the live Bunnymen camp. This DVD reminded me of when I caught them on the same tour, their stage presentation showing how more contemporary acts like Oasis and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have pretty much cribbed their entire act from the Liverpool stalwarts.
As Dancing Horses started, though, I wasn't sure it was going to work. All of the elements that can make Echo & the Bunnymen boring to watch were there, and having them boxed into the frame of a television screen seemed like the worst way to emphasize them. The band barely moves, made all the worse by the fact that 75% of the time, they are completely cloaked in shadow. This lack of dynamics doesn't particularly play to the camera. The film crew seems conscious of this and seems determined to get around it by making sure they never stay in one place too long. While there aren't sweeping crane shots or anything, there are enough camera set-ups that the editor can switch around his angles on a regular enough basis to keep the otherwise static stage show moving.
The band plays like a storm, the double guitars of Will Sergeant and Gordon Goudie creating the vast layers of melodic noise that has been the band's enduring signature. The set is well constructed, punctuating noisy rockers like "Villiers Terrace" and "The Cutter" with softer, dreamy tunes like "Bring on the Dancing Horses," "Nothing Lasts Forever," and Donnie Darko's favorite song, "The Killing Moon." What really sets a good Bunnymen night apart, however, is how engaged singer Ian McCulloch is in the performance. His voice is a lot raspier than it used to be, and he doesn't dance around as much as when I saw him in the mid-90s (if he does at all, which is not really; you've never seen a singer wear a heavy coat through a whole show and not break a sweat the way he does), but he is incredibly present on Dancing Horses. The show ends with the softer "Ocean Rain," and his voice is honeyed and sweet. Maturity has actually improved it.
The full song list:
As you can see, it's a strong selection, playing to all manner of Bunnymen fans and covering a career that has spanned three decades.