Tuesday, 3 November 2009

761 MERCURY REV, Howling Bells, Oxford Carling Academy, Friday 14 November 2008

Having seen this lot last, all of 4 years and 6 days ago and proclaiming at the time, "Mercury Rev are back - with a vengeance!" only to see them deliver another nowhere-near-as-good-as-"live" CD and promptly disappear once more, I was keeping an open mind about the Rev this time. This thought was further compounded by the new CD "Snowflake Midnight", which saw their spooky, ethereal paeans to outback Americana smothered in swathes of electronica. Not quite the "Rev gone dance", as reported, but certainly a little worrying and akin to Bob Mould's similarly disappointing foray into the way of the synth. Still, they'd never let us down "live" yet, so here's hoping the newer stuff might make more sense in this environment!

So we hit the road, parking in Tescos as usual. This however was our first trip to the former Zodiac venue since Carling had gutted the place and turned the smaller downstairs room into a 1,000 capacity venue. So, a slight ticket confusion later, we were checking out an old haunt... for the first time! Not bad, good eyeline, but seems smaller than its' reported capacity...

Got a drink in and perused support Howling Bells from the back. They were interesting, female fronted purveyors of slightly countrified US alt-pop with a gothy undertone, somewhere between Madder Rose and Siouxsie And The Banshees! An odd brew for sure, making their set always intriguing but not particularly memorable.

We stayed at the back for the Rev due to the good view, Rach's pregnancy, and the crowd at this long venue, so when the lights dimmed down the front for the entrance of the Rev we barely noticed! However, the Rev were on at 9.15, led by Jonathan Donahue, formerly the coolest rock star alive, still looking wiry and sprightly yet with a greying beard embellishing his angular features, and sidekick Grasshopper, leather, quiff and Ray-Bans still present, still looking like a rock star from central casting. They eased into a set which initially relied on the pounding electronic rhythms of the new CD and which, despite an early and lovely "Holes" drifted somewhat for us. Herein lay the problem - it wasn't just the treatment of the new stuff, it's that the material itself isn't up to their usual standard. Shame.

However, a beautiful, stripped back "Tonite It Shows" with just harmonica and piano accompanying Donahue's clear soprano, turning the song into a late night torch number par excellence, really grabbed the attention, and a subsequent "Frittering", whilst not quite reaching the heights this morose yet soaring classic is capable of, kept the momentum. A dreamlike "Spiders And Flies" and a wonderful "Opus 40", plangent and anthemic, saw the set end strongly, before "Goddess On A Hiway" kicked off an encore in brilliant fashion.

Then "The Dark Is Rising", the high watermark of their canon of work, was rolled out with a majestic sweep. Donahue, more demonstrative than usual throughout and clearly having a ball up there, conducted the epic orchestral crescendos as this haunting thing of wonder flew around us, ending the evening with style and grandeur.

Or so we thought! However the electronica kicked in again, so we decided to leave after about 1 1/2 hours of a mystifying, frustrating, wonderful evening from this chameleonic group. In places brilliant, in others just plain forgettable, who knows what to expect now from Mercury Rev?

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