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Live review: Shambles at The Stables – Ian McCulloch in Milton Keynes, April 20

This is an expanded version of a review that will appear in Record Collector magazine

Stopping by the ‘city’ of concrete cows and roundabouts on a short solo acoustic tour, the Echo & The Bunnymen frontman is at The Stables in Wavendon: despite the venue name, an intimate state of the art theatre owned by scat-jazz maestra, Cleo Laine, which just happens to be down the road from where the teenaged me lived and discovered the Liverpool quartet at the height of their mid ‘80s pomp and glory.

Outside of the band’s soaring neo-psychedelia, the spiky, spunky singer was best known for two things: a bottle of Jack Daniels as a stage prop, and, usually as a result of his endless tirades against his perceived contemporaries, the effervescent epithet Mac The Mouth.

But it’s clear from the moment he saunters onstage, trademark shades and shade, giving repeated directions to the sound man to “Give me less reverb, right?” that the mouth seems rather more interested in talking than singing.

I can’t make out from where I’m seated whether he’s ‘Jacked’ or not, but whatever the liquid refreshment he regularly reaches for between-song and mid-song is, it seems to be working. And it won’t be the last time the roadie is tyrannically admonished tonight either.

‘An Evening With Ian McCulloch’ was trailed as a glimpse into his approach to the art of songwriting and dishing up amusing insights to life, music and more. The only trouble is we ended up laughing at him rather than with him. Mac goes down the mouthy route so often he halts songs after a verse, a line or even a word because he feels he has some gripping anecdote he wishes to impart. A few tunes in and Joanne, my concert companion, turns to me and exclaims, “He’s battered!” Understatement of the night.

Targets for his barely comprehensible biting wit – aka slurred, derogatory ramblings – included his mum, southerners, Jo Wiley’s feet, Cleo Laine (pretty half-assed attempt at impersonation too) and even his supposedly all-time hero doesn’t escape unscathed, with the Scouse scally rubbishing David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, with the slightly hearing-impaired overview, “Where’s the fookin’ tune?” And you can go to 3:20 on the video for the full monologue:

Sadly. Ian came across as a sozzled old busker whose life has fallen apart, sitting at end of the bar desperately trying to get anyone to listen to his frequently unamusing quips.

On the rare occasion he could be bothered to sit the whole way through a song, there were flashes of former glories. Bring On The Dancing Horses was majestic, Bedbugs And Ballyhoo, but Mac ruins the momentum with a barrage of verbal diarrhoea that one might associate more with Jimmy Tarbuck or Stan Boardman rather than a so-called rock legend.

It was intriguing to hear how well ’80s anthems like The Killing Moon (“the greatest song ever written,” exclaimed its typically bravado boy-writer) and Seven Seas – the first Bunnymen record I bought, circa summer 1984 – work in acoustic form, shorn of their grandiosity that allows you to see their simple elegiac beauty shine through, but largely this is sad, self-parodic stuff.

The gig was memorable for all the wrong reasons, and this once magisterial rock star unfortunately came across as more wally than scally. Still, nothing lasts forever.

Steve Pafford

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