Mercury Rev, Nicole Atkins: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Mercury Rev (photo by Getintothis' Chris Almeida)

Mercury Rev 

Mercury Rev took to the stage in Manchester for a ear-splittingly theatrical evening, GetintothisJames Sullivan was there to witness it. 

There’s a bizarre mix of characters milling around the Royal Northern College of Music before Mercury Rev. Brogue-wearing bespectacled music students scribble down quavers and crotchets on their sheet music; old blokes in Peter Storm raincoats carry paper cups of tea looking baffled to be out on a Monday night; a feathercut man in a white shirt and black waistcoat looks excited, chatting quickly to his girlfriend between sips of wine.

Inside, the venue is equally unusual for essentially a rock and roll band, even one as theatrical as New York State’s Mercury Rev. Tiered seating and a hexagonal stage, combined with the mishmash of crowd members and the college setting, gives the whole thing the feeling of a school play.

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So when Nashville-via-New Jersey singer Nicole Atkins shimmers on to the stage alone wearing a flowing kimono, everyone settles down for the avant-garde. As it turns out, her songs are classically conventional – torch ballads, country and soul tunes sung beautifully, accompanied by her own reverb-soaked guitar. She thanks the crowd profusely before ending with Roy Orbison’s Crying and slides off backstage.

Twenty minutes later and the lights go down again for Mercury Rev. There’s a restrained excitement in the air – seven years had passed prior to October’s album The Light in You, after all. The smoke machine goes into overdrive and an extended intro and birdsong plays before the band bursts into The Queen of Swans.

The theme of flight comes back again and again over the course of the next ninety minutes. The songs frequently explode into life ten seconds in, and again for lengthy earsplitting outros.

Singer Jonathan Donahue is bird limbed and bright eyed: flapping his arms and perching in front of his monitor. He sings of floating away, the trees, the sun, the tides of the moon. He wafts his arms towards guitarist Grasshopper (otherwise known as Sean Mackowiak), as if conducting the symphony of noise, the two being the only original members across a turbulent career.

Car Wash Hair, now almost 25 years old, is an early highlight, revved up and urgent despite its age. So too Frittering from the same album, Yerself is Steam.

Songs from The Light in You, which tread the line of whimsy on record, are far more dynamic live, veering away from Flaming Lips similarities and becoming more brutal, more jagged. Donahue is the centre of everything, a smile on his face and a glint in his eye as he dictates proceedings, all the while looking like a sleazy magician from the Rocky Horror Picture Show with the voice of Art Garfunkel.

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They take songs from across their back catalogue. 1998’s Deserter’s Songs is leaned on heavily; Holes and Endlessly both play out in a dreamlike state; Tides of the Moon (from All is Dream) is a wall of noise, a glorious assault:

The threads that run through your life / Hand from your sleeve / Wind through your soul / The kind you can’t control”.

While it would be true to say that the night’s highlights come from the band’s albums up to 2001, Are You Ready – from the latest record – is as good as anything they play all night. It also contains a handy phrase for any music hack looking for pocket description of the band: “psychedelic rock and blue eyed soul”.

A gleaming Goddess on a Hiway is noticeably more direct than much of their catalogue and sounds as beautiful as it did all those years ago. The waistcoated feathercut and his girlfriend from earlier on can take it no longer and rush for the stage: him spinning and flailing his limbs in Donahue hero-worship; her shuffling gainfully alongside him.

It would be unfair to suggest that Mercury Rev’s best albums are behind them, despite evidence suggesting this might be the case. Because live they’re a different proposition. There’s a deep sense of theatre, a discerning curation of their own back catalogue, and the musical chops to make their songs take flight into the night air.

They remain a curious, dynamic, restless treat.

Photos by Getintothis’ Chris Almeida.