NME April '99
Echo & The Bunnymen / Polly Jean Harvey & John Parish
London W1 Improv Theatre
Birthday parties have a tendency to begin politely and end messily, but when the guests of honour are a mistress of darkness and a liverpudlian Lazarus, you can't expect things to remain civilised for long. Polly Harvey toasts John Peel's approaching 60th with sweet deference, but then she strips for the occasion - paring her songs down to their ferociously acoustic core - and all hell breaks loose.
Accompanied only by guitarist John Parish, the potency of Harvey's performance rides on little more than the barbed beauty of her voice. She discards the quasi-industrial dub of her more recent material to focus on her early work - delving back to reanimate the ragged anguish of 'Oh My Lover', the brooding stealth of 'Man-size', the rarely-played trash-bash explosion of '50ft Queenie'.
Her willowy frame spothit in blood-red beams, it's difficult to imagine a more corrosive expression of psychotically desperate desire than 'Rid Of Me' or a more sinister paean to absent love than 'Teclo'. All the qualities that set Harvey furlongs apart from her female singer / songwriter peers are tonight made vehemently clear. Every song throbs with serrated anger, yet thinly conceals seductive vulnerability; and where lesser creatures (Jewel, Sheryl Crow, the entire Lilith Fair) may warble of love and God yet communicate only shallow angst-by-numbers, Harvey evokes a spiritual squirm of biblical proportions. And even when she forgets the words to 'Send his Love To Me', her icy composure never slips.
Not so Ian McCulloch, who doesn't so much blow his cool as spontaneously combust. Swearing and swaggering, he threatens the soundman's life: 'Can you sort that fucking feedback?' he slurs, 'It's doing my vibe in .' A shame, as despite the overwhelming beauty of opener 'Fools Like Us' and the terrific greatest hits set, something fails to gel tonight, perhaps due to the fact that of the original Bunnymen only fringe-heavy guitarist Will Sergeant remains. As McCulloch yelps in 'Rescue': 'Things are going wrong/Can you tell that in a song'. Sure can, and the remedy seems not so much hang the DJ, as sack the drummer.
Nevertheless, even when ropey, Echo & The Bunnymen are forcible. The songs from the Bunnymen's new album are suffused with love like a sunbeam piercing a prism -'Rust' and 'When It All Blows Over' act as mature counterpoint to the jerkily oblique likes of 'The Cutter' and 'Do It Clean'. McCulloch remains every inch the dark glasses-obscured icon, throwing cigarettes to the ground before they're even halt exhausted - not a man to let anything die in his hands.
Neither is John Peel. And surely there couldn't be a better reminder than tonight's pairing of Harvey and the resurrected Bunnymen (so close to Easter even!) of why he's dedicated most of his 60 years to keeping music alive.