Mercury Rev @ Glee Club, 10 December 2018

Never has a venue and band been more perfectly suited than the Glee Club and Mercury Rev, particularly for this tour, which celebrates 20 years since the release of their seminal album ‘Deserter’s Songs’, with a stripped down ‘acoustic’ set featuring the album in full.  I did wonder before the show, how they were going to distil the magical orchestration of that album into a couple of acoustic guitars, but it is clear right away from the instruments on stage, this is not strictly an unplugged affair.  So you actually have two electric guitars, a keyboard/synth and an acoustic guitar, which before the show begins, still doesn’t feel quite enough to pull off the task at hand.

However, as chief Rev, Jonathon Donahue, explains early on, this tour is the celebration of how ‘Deserter’s Songs’ came to be written, not necessarily the finished product, which relaunched the band’s wavering career.  He speaks eloquently about the dark times for the band after the failure of 1995’s ‘See You on the Other Side’ (for which personally I blame their record label and distributor, because only inadequate marketing and promotion could have caused an album that contains songs as good as ‘Young Man’s Stride’ and ‘Sudden Ray of Hope’ to not sell).  But not sell it did, leaving Jonathon and Sean (Grasshopper) in an attic room in upstate New York, with no money, no label and almost no hope.

Out of that despair came ‘Deserter’s Songs’, but not in the form we first heard it… until now.  Jonathon talks in between almost each song in the set, colourfully describing how he and Grasshopper wrote the songs in an atmosphere of whispers and hushed tones, because the neighbours below their flat would bang on the ceiling when the volume became unacceptable.  And so, delicately and carefully Mercury Rev take the audience on a journey back to that attic in the Catskill Mountains during the mid-90s and play the most beautiful versions of the songs we know so well, in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the album versions.  The Glee Club’s audience sits enraptured for 90 minutes both by the music and the insights into the inner workings of Mercury Rev.

As advertised, it really is an intimate affair and Jonathon is in a conversational and confessional mood.  When he describes the mid-90s phenomenon Britpop as this looming, black cloud that moved over the Atlantic smothering everything in its path, you appreciate how real artists suffered during those dark days of Manc arrogance and cor blimey faux cockneys, and how an album like ‘See You on the Other Side’ could fail.  And how, the songs that became ‘Deserter’s Songs’ were written from a place in someone’s heart where they simultaneously believed in them, but also believed they would fail too; so out of place were they at that time.  Thankfully, with a push from The Chemical Brothers the album came in under the radar and gave us a bit of much needed light… and was given the recognition it deserved.  After all, without that success we would not have enjoyed subsequent Mercury Rev releases, or now be in a position to celebrate the twentieth anniversary in such style and gay abandon.  And that is what this tour feels like.  Mercury Rev are clearly loving playing these stripped back sets and talking with their fans, without any sense of entitlement or arrogance.  If anything Jonathon’s delivery is humble.  You can really tell he doesn’t take success for granted and is grateful for his audience’s continued support and attention.  But when a band puts on a show like this; something so engaging and captivating, it is not easily bettered.

The music is sublime.  Beautifully clear in the small room; carefully balanced to give Jonathon’s delicate voice enough space amongst the swirling electric guitars, which are coated in vibrato, reverb, delay and a light distortion.  The keyboard admirably fills in for the missing orchestra, adding organ, piano, music box or glockenspiel motifs in its place.  And Jonathon occasionally plays a bowed saw, which is a sight and sound to behold.  Jonathon sings with a wide-eyed, joyful expression throughout and this is reflected in the faces of the fans.

The highlights are… well, every song and every story; it is effortlessly brilliant.  They even drop in a Pavement song after discussing a time when Jonathon was flicking through his record collection and remarking on how holding a vinyl album can transport you back in time to the moment you bought it and the first experience of hearing it.  Pavement’s ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ has the power to do that, just like ‘Deserter’s Songs’.  It is particularly touching to end the night on a song, not on that album, but the next release: ‘The Dark is Rising’.  It suggests that from the darkness of the initial failure of ‘See You on the Other Side’, came the beauty of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ and from the faith restored in them came the stunning follow up ‘All Is Dream’.  The lines: “But words that flow between friends, Winding streams, without end, I wanted you to see” sum up what Mercury Rev are; friends who open a window onto a wider view.  Their music and vision is panoramic, but they thrive on a quietly whispered word. 

I was fortunate enough to see Mercury Rev in 2001 on the ‘All Is Dream’ tour at the Wulfrun Hall, and the light show and all-encompassing cinematic sound was breath-taking.  Tonight’s show is a million miles from that performance, but what it loses in spectacle it gains in an almost one on one, human to human personal interaction.  I will never forget this night and it serves as a positive reminder that every Britpop cloud has a silver lining… good music is always being created, even if it doesn’t always reach its deserved audience.  Thankfully Mercury Rev found theirs.

The tour continues into December so treat yourself to an early Christmas present and get a ticket.

Setlist:

The Funny Bird

Tonite It Shows

I Collect Coins

Hudson Line

Here (Pavement cover)

Endlessly

Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp

Goddess on a Hiway

Holes

Opus 40

The Dark is Rising

 

Reviewer: Alan Neilson

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