An unlikely pairing of alternative rock hit makers of the ’80s scratched the nostalgic itch of about 2,500 concertgoers at Crossroads KC on Tuesday.
Echo & the Bunnymen, a British band celebrated for its ornate psychedelic sound, and Violent Femmes, a convulsively eccentric ensemble from Milwaukee, have little in common aside from a core base of fans who have fond memories of the music often marketed as “new wave” during the Reagan era.
Founded almost 40 years ago in Liverpool, Echo & the Bunnymen have rarely performed in the Midwest. Fans who dared to hope that the group’s outing would be as impressive as recent area performances by its veteran British peers including Psychedelic Furs likely came to mixed conclusions.
The opening salvo of three excellent songs from the band’s 1980 debut album “Crocodiles” was astounding. A manic rendition of the garage-rock gem “Do It Clean” was particularly menacing.
The charismatic vocalist Ian McCulloch clung to a microphone stand as if he feared the slight evening breeze might topple him, but he sang with the salacious gusto of the late Jim Morrison of the Doors.
His scratchy voice — substantially altered from the band’s commercial heyday — allowed McCulloch to act as an effective shaman on the pop confection “Lips Like Sugar.”
Yet he proved incapable of hitting the high notes that made the 1985 hit “Bring Out the Dancing Horses” distinctive. He elected to smoke during his band’s signature song “The Killing Moon,” a choice that emphasized the limitations of his ravaged voice.
The guitar work of Will Sergeant, the other remaining original member of the sextet, remained wonderfully nuanced. His subtle interjections on the swirling shimmer of “The Cutter” were sublime.
McCulloch repeatedly howled, “Is this the blues I’m singing?” during “Rescue.” It wasn’t. Violent Femmes, however, effectively subverted American roots music prior to Echo & the Bunnymen’s set.
Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie, the group’s longstanding creative forces, managed to retain their dignity while reviving gleefully juvenile material from the ’80s.
“Add It Up,” a frantic song about sexual frustration, was given a sophisticated blues treatment that sounded like a collaboration between the guitar legend Buddy Guy and the experimental noise-rock band Sonic Youth.
In spite of its problematic lyrics, “Black Girls” provided the evening’s most remarkable moments. An array of instrumentation including violin, conch shell, Eva Mendoza’s adventurous electric guitar and a horn section transformed Violent Femmes’ into an avant-garde chamber group that convincingly demonstrated that re-creations of ’80s rock needn’t be routine to be effective.
Echo & the Bunnymen set list
Going Up; Rescue; Do It Clean; All That Jazz; Seven Seas; Bedbugs and Ballyhoo; Over the Wall; Never Stop; Bring on the Dancing Horses; Nothing Lasts Forever; The Killing Moon; The Cutter; Lips Like Sugar
Violent Femmes set list
I’m Nothing; Memory; Breaking Up; Good For/At Nothing; Blister in the Sun; Kiss Off; Country Death Song; Waiting for the Bus; I Could Be Anything; I Held Her in My Arms; Color Me Once; Black Girls; Gone Daddy Gone; Add It Up