Some nights turn out shit. It’s an inescapable law of the world. “The best laid plans of mice and men” resonates for a reason. Still, I had a feeling about last night before it even began. I hadn’t been to a show in ages, yet I was looking for reasons to stay home. Not that I had anything particular to do. Maybe laundry. Killing flies for my wife… as this is apparently how she spent her evening of solitude… with a rolled magazine and white hot rage.
The great Mr. Smalls Funhouse venue is located in an old church in the Pittsburgh hamlet of Millvale. Millvale is a sleepy little enclave, going completely dark by 8pm… except when there’s a show at Mr. Smalls… and/or when the entire planet seems to converge on the town under the name of festivities called “Millvalle Days.” Millvale Days are a three-day festival where people prone to being drunk wander the streets, eat kettle corn and listen to Skynard cover bands. Someone ultimately stumbles on the uneven pavement and requires medical attention. It’s a scene, man. And every year I seem to attend a concert at Mr. Smalls during Millvale Days.
Combine Millvale Days with a sold out concert and you’ve shaken the powder keg. The main street is blocked off, thereby rendering half of the town’s parking inaccessible. Far away side streets, shady back alleys next to dumpsters and cars on blocks and illegal parking become the primary alternatives. After circling the illogical streets of Millvale for more than twenty minutes I settled on a 1/3rd legal parking spot, a spot that was far more legal than at least a dozen other parking jobs I’d already passed. I calculated the odds of a police person having enough time to rip tickets for the more egregious offenders before hitting the secondary offenders before the end of the show. I felt good about my chances.
So. Echo and the Bunnymen. I arrived just in time to grab a DogfishHead 60 Minute IPA and sidle up in a spot toward the rear center of the venue. Don’t get trapped under the new balcony, by the way, Mr. Smalls attendees. Echo opened with “Crocodiles” — the title track from their debut record. This introduced a block of songs that an average listener probably didn’t recognize. The earliest and the latest tracks — speaking of which, apparently Echo released a record last year. Who knew? And if you knew, why didn’t you tell me? Anyway. These were the tracks for the fans, tracks made us all anticipate the anthemic moments that were still yet to come. As much as I enjoy these early Echo tracks, they’re not the huge crowdpleasers. They’re not the tracks that incite spontaneous sing-a-longs and fuck yeah fist pumps. They’re welcome headnodders.
Ian McCulloch’s voice rang true as he hovered stoically at the center of the stage. A little more gravelly and aged, a weathered gate worthy of his 56 years. After shaking the rust, he sounded shockingly similar to the recorded tracks that by now feel etched into the stone tablets of our minds. But it wasn’t McCulloch that ultimately brought the crowd fully into the fold. Will Sergeant’s instantly recognizable guitar riffs catapulted the sold-out throng to life during the first moments of “Rescue” and then later when Echo launched into that string of mega hits, beginning first with “Seven Seas.”
McCulloch rarely opened up the proceedings for levity. He remained the angsty twenty-something raging against the dawn, a rare treat for fans of classic bands that have long since put aside the angst for a more age-appropriate level of placidity. He stood at the front of the stage, always in sunglasses and often cloaked by the shadows of the rear-lighting. He’d sing a block of songs before pausing to introduce another, his Liverpudlian accent and microphone reverb rendering all such words unintelligible.
For what reason has Echo and the Bunnymen fallen into relative anonymity? This is the question that began rattling around in my brain. They’re often compared to a band like The Psychedelic Furs. Post-rock. Jangly guitars. Brooding frontmen. Is it because the Furs contributed a song to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack? Their legacy endures because of the synesthesia nostalgia associated with Molly Ringwold and Ducky? If you type “Pretty in Pink” into Google, it will suggest an autofill of “Pretty in Pink song” above the autofill for just the name of the movie. In my mind, Echo looms large over the 1980’s. Am I wrong? Have I been misled? If Duran Duran and The Cure are like the A-list of sometimes brooding, influential post-punk bands of the era, Echo feels like an A-/B+. Though I came around to Echo shortly after their peak, I vividly recall a time as recent as the late 90’s where everyone who knew music knew Echo and the Bunnymen.
When Echo announced this show at Mr. Smalls, I hopped online, day one, and bought a ticket. I figured this would be a hot ticket, a much ado about something in Millvale on September 17th. After all, when the hell had Echo last played Pittsburgh? Not during the 13 on-and-off years I’ve lived here.
A college kid that did some housepainting for me over a couple of days this summer really knew indie music. We engaged in many conversations. He asked about any upcoming shows I had on my docket. I mentioned Delta Spirit. I then added, with much enthusiasm, that I’d snagged a ticket to see Echo and the Bunnymen! Cool, right? Echo and the f’ing Bunnymen!
He stared at me blankly. The same guy who’d browsed my record collection, calling other 80’s-born records with admiration. Though we listened to the exact same music, followed the same modern bands, he had no idea about the Bunnymen. I never blame anyone for not knowing a band. Unlike some maniacal music fans, I do not take offense when someone’s frame of reference does not overlap my own. I was just confused. I knew… well, I thought I knew that Echo and the Bunnymen still resonated. You can’t turn on more than 20 minutes of college radio without hearing the influence of Echo and the Bunnymen laced throughout that amorphous genre known as “indie-rock.”
It’s time to start a public service movement. Introduce someone you love, someone you want to grow as a human, to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine or perhaps Ocean Rain. These are the gateway drugs. Once they proclaim their affection, keep going back to their debut, Crocodiles. Standing in Mr. Smalls on Thursday, seeing this mass of sold-out humanity moved once again by these songs reminded me just how essential Echo remains. Spread the word, Echo never really went anywhere; they just don’t remind anyone of Andrew McCarthy’s bitchin’ hair.
Lucky for me these epiphanies occurred during the show. Appreciation. Admiration for a band continuing on despite waning popularity due to time and distance. Remember when I said that some nights turn out to be kinda shit? Well, I skipped out of Smalls, on a nice post-show buzz, hopped it my car and headed home only to find out that the city of Pittsburgh closed the southbound tunnel. After 80 minutes of stop-and-go traffic around the damn mountain, I finally arrived home. Carnivals and closed tunnels. Semi-legal parking and ambient Skynard covers. A 4-hour round trip for 90 minutes of Echo.
So worth it.
I’ve never seen such a bizarre and bountiful collection of facial hair at one show. Is odd or distinctive facial hair the new midlife crisis? I saw Rollie Fingerses, Magnum, P.I.s, Johnny Fevers, Goose Gossages. I saw beards of all widths, girths and ineptness. I saw handlebars and fu manchus, braids and mutton chops. Instead of documenting the show I felt compelled to document the litany of notable facial coifs. A truly notable assemblage. Hence, the noting.