No doubt still smarting from Real Madrid’s defeat of his beloved football team in the Champions League Final, Ian ‘Mac’ McCulloch ambled across a smoke-filled stage at the Royal Albert Hall as the Merseyside band he has fronted for the best part of the last 40 years prepared to bring their latest UK tour to an elegant close. And a rather unusual tour it was.
Backstage at the world-famous Kensington Gore venue, the word ‘renaissance’ is being uttered in hushed tones. It’s been four years since the last studio release from Echo & The Bunnymen but, thanks to new global deal with BMG, October 5th will witness the unveiling of The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, an album of “transformed and reinterpreted” versions of past glories including ‘Seven Seas’, ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ and ‘The Cutter’, recorded at Abbey Road with a full string section.
“It’s beautiful… a real laid-back affair that still has edge, only in a different way,” said production manager Adey Willson, who explained that the tour – featuring McCulloch’s fellow mainstay, guitarist Will Sargeant, alongside the Cairn String Quartet from Glasgow – was part of a plan to test this orchestral concept in front of live audiences.
Although it’s only six UK dates [in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Gateshead and London], it’s a full production tour with two Brian Yeardley trucks carrying sound and lighting exclusively from Entec, and I’m delighted to say it’s been incredibly successful with all gigs sold out. Finishing at the Albert Hall is the perfect way of ending on a high.”
For Willson, whose co-conspirators included tour manager Ian ‘Heinz’ McCowliff, FOH engineer Robbie McGrath, monitor engineer/system technician Bertie Hunter and lighting designer Ronan Conway, the tour was an opportunity to reacquaint himself with the west London rental company he got to know in the early ’80s through working with The Police and Gillan.
“Apart from TV appearances on shows such as ‘The Tube’, I don’t believe Entec had previously worked with the Bunnymen,” he said, “but Robbie and Ronan were both very supportive of my wish to go with them. Certainly with regards to the Albert Hall and the company’s annual residencies here on the Teenage Cancer Trust shows, there is no better supplier. Their crew have been absolutely fantastic all the way through and we’ve had some good laughs on the tour bus.”
In 1984, soon after Gillan’s demise, Willson was on the hunt for work as a drum/keyboard tech, specifically with the Bunnymen, and turned to McGrath. “Robbie was already installed as their FOH engineer and as they were one of my favourite bands, I was hounding him to give me a gig. Instead of the Bunnymen, he hooked me up with Tears For Fears and that lasted for five years. It’s funny how Robbie’s ended up coming back to work with the Bunnymen and he finally got me into the camp as the PM this January. It’s a real privilege – this magnificent music and Mac’s familiar voice have been giving me goose bumps every night!”
After basic workouts at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool, the crew loaded into Edinburgh’s Usher Hall for two days of production rehearsals ahead of the first show. Leading the audio mission was Robbie McGrath, a FOH engineer who requires little introduction but, if asked nicely, might reveal that his early ’70s entry into the big bad biz through Celtic rock pioneers Horslips was followed by stints with The Boomtown Rats, AC/DC, Simply Red, The Rolling Stones, Kasabian, The Stone Roses, Spandau Ballet and, in the mid-’80s, the Bunnymen.
“I started with this band a couple of years after I left the Rats, and it was great fun when we were all still young and skinny, and wore combat jackets,” McGrath reminds us with a sigh before dragging himself back to the present.
“Once you bring strings on to a live stage amongst guitars and drums, you’re immediately in trouble,” said the Irishman, “but it’s only the usual problems like halls and environments that you’re dealing with – stuff that I’ve learned to cope with over many years. For the rest of the tour, we’ve had normal left and right hangs with infills [a total of 24 d&b audiotechnik J-Series cabinets and 12 J-SUBs], and that worked very well, but you have to pay a lot of attention to the Albert Hall, otherwise it’ll eat you.
“Fortunately, the J-Series has been tried, tested and perfected here by Entec, who have been tweaking the configuration of the system on the Teenage Cancer Trust gigs for years and got it down to a fine art. The J is great for firing down on the audience at a distance – it gets sweeter the further you are from it.”