A distinct change in mood anticipated tonight, following yesterday’s Summery powerpop sesh from Surfer Blood; tonight the return of Mercury Rev! Proof that nothing quite ages you like music, it’s now amazingly been 17 years since the classic “Deserter’s Songs” thrust this hitherto-experimental US alt-rock combo firmly into the limelight, its’ mix of delta blues, widescreen operatic soundscapes and bewildering and bewitching Americana earning them the epithet of “America’s Most Pioneering Band” from the NME (which actually counted for something at the time) and vocalist Jonathan Donahue the title of the Coolest Rockstar On The Planet from me (which still counts!). However their last album, 2008’s “Snowflake Midnight”, an unfortunate (and pretty much unlistenable) foray into electronica, saw them lose a lot of ground and goodwill, and retreat to their Catskill Mountain bolthole, never to be heard of again. Until,,,
News of a new album in the offing – and thankfully, a return to a guitar based sound! – saw me pouncing on one of the few tickets left for this show, Beef grabbing one as well. Thus it was that us two old musos headed down the M4 on a typically murky Autumn evening, skipping through the chill and dank drizzle from Cabot car park to hit this appropriately evocative former church hall venue about 8. Just in time, unfortunately, for support Holly Macve, who was sadly dreadful. A solo folksinger, her voice swooped and keened like a Banshee wail, or worse, like Dolores Cranberry, and was frankly painful to listen to at times, making her backwoods campfire folk set a trial of endurance. I wasn’t the only one holding this view, either, as the general background hubbub increased considerably after about 10 minutes…
We found a good viewing spot stage left near the front, with dry ice swirling around twinkling onstage keyboard lights, and Gregorian chanting intro music, segueing into washes of symphonic dreamscapes, evocatively heralding the arrival of Mercury Rev at 9.05. An unexpectedly powerful opener, newie “Are You Ready”, stridently delivered the psychedelic rock and blue-eyed soul promised by the lyric, and the Rev were already away, hitting the ground running for one of those very special nights.
Mercury Rev were utterly magnificent tonight. Another band (like Wolf Alice) who “live” eschew a number of the nuances and textural sounds of their recorded output, in favour of a bigger, bolder and more powerful sound, the huge, sky-scrapingly anthemic nature of their material really comes to the fore with these more compact, streamlined renditions, the songs taking flight with pace, purpose and often seething and bristling power. And Jonathan Donahue was amazing; a riveting and flamboyant performer, fulsome of gesture and expression, raffish hat and necktie adorning his black waistcoat and shirtsleeves combo and making him the smartest hobo on the planet, a beatific smile and wide eyes constantly gracing his features. An eerie “The Funny Bird” was next up, all drama and crashing drums, with the piano riff crawling around one’s spine like an old Doors number, then oldie “Carwash Hair” opened like a plangent twinkling thing of beauty, far removed from the discordant and moody original, then rocked triumphantly to its’ conclusion, Donahue conducting his band and drummer.
The classics kept coming; “Endlessly” with its’ heavenly choirs and magical flute embellishments, was given a lighter treatment in comparison to other numbers on show, then “Frittering” was awesome; widescreen, creepy, epic and cacophonous, possibly the best number on show in the set (under some pretty fierce competition!). A lot of light and shade on show as well, with newie “The Queen Of Swans” creeping in delicately before a typical plangent and soaring Rev hook, the lyric “sometimes years go by, it seems” entirely apposite for tonight’s triumphant return. “Holes” was epic, shimmering and quite beautiful, and set closer “Opus 40” again saw Donahue conducting his band through a lengthy and mesmeric instrumental jam and huge crescendo.
But the highlight of the night was still waiting for us; after first encore, the moody “Goddess On A Hiway”, an utterly stunning “The Dark Is Rising” ended the performance perfectly, a stratospheric and heavenly rendition, culminating in Donahue slowly raising his arms for dramatic effect, as the band built to a thunderous crescendo behind him. Quite, quite brilliant.
I grabbed a set list, running into recent Bristol gig buddy Alfie down the front in the process, then we hung around awhile to catch our breath, our patience also being rewarded as guitarist Grasshopper and bassist Anthony emerged for congratulations, signed lists and (eventual) photos. I then interrupted Jonathan Donahue, packing up onstage, for congrats and a hasty selfie, also telling him it was an honour to witness tonight’s triumphant return to form for Mercury Rev. Because, well, it was…!
Alfie, Beef and I wandered back to Cabot reflecting on tonight’s performance, then a swift drive home for midnight. Shattered the next day, but totally worth it. Tonight, Mercury Rev totally resurrected themselves, delivering one of the gigs of the year in the process. Awesome stuff!