Not the Colston Hall, Bristol
This was one of a small series of concerts to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Bella Union label. I’d snapped up tickets as soon as they went on sale – how could I not? One of my very favourite acts, playing with a full orchestra and a Cocteau Twin? Yes please. There was a hiccup the day before, when the roof fell in on the original venue, the Colston Hall, and it was hurriedly moved to the O2 Academy in town. I was a bit anxious about this. The Academy is fine, but more of a scuzzy rock venue than the refined concert hall vibe of the Colston. It turned out okay though, as we found a place with perfect sightlines and the sound was mixed as well as I’d have expected up the road. A big shout to whoever was in charge of the logistics – I have no idea how they fitted thirty people, most of them seated, onto the Academy’s stage but they managed it. God only knows how rammed the dressing room was.
The support is a new signing to Bella Union, one Charlie Coxedge. He has a simple set up of electric guitar, loop pedals and keyboards, which he uses to create shifting chiming soundscapes. He’s somewhere between a one man Explosions In The Sky (without the sturm und drang) and the rarified ambience of Michael Rother’s solo records. Strays a bit too close to New Age whimsy at times, but in the main it’s lovely stuff, and I’ll be checking his album out.
There has always been a kind of fractured fairytale quality to Mercury Rev’s music, not the cod weirdness of a Tim Burton, more an honest but skewed take on classic Disney scores (listen to the instrumental version of Deserters Songs album if you can, and you’ll hear what I mean). There’s also a kind of rural eeriness, stemming from their long term base in the Catskill Mountains. This setting brings both of those elements right out. The orchestra is no mere adornment to a straight rendition of catalogue material, but the driving musical force on the stage. The strings carry the music with great sweeping waves of sound, the brass and woodwind add playful little flourishes and the grand piano maintains the melodies while Grasshopper and Raymonde’s guitars patch in odd textures and noises, with the occasional twinkly space age solo. Jonathan Donahue is in fine voice, and is a dramatic visually arresting frontman, like some louche aged pixie. Another unbilled treat is Adrian Utley from Portishead joining in to lend more guitar effects to “Holes” and sitting in for the rest of the set.
The setlist is drawn largely from the Deserters Songs and All Is Dream albums, with a few surprises. The band have obviously considered what songs lend themselves best to the orchestral treatment, and so there’s no room for the guitar heavy freakouts of “Goddess On A Hiway” or “Car Wash Hair”, but dips into the far reaches of the catalogue. The likes of “Racing The Tide”, “Hercules” or ‘Downs Are Feminine Balloons” don’t come out to play very often, so their appearance here is one to be appreciated.
Long term Mercury Rev fans will know the band often play some fine covers* and so it goes tonight. Holly Macve, also signed to Bella and who Rev fans will remember from her support slot at their Trinity gig eighteen months ago, sings Helen Shapiro’s “I Wish I’d Never Loved You” (originally written by Simon Raymonde’s dad). A cover of an old Flaming Lips song is prefaced by Jonathan’s reminiscences of his time in that band, and then the penultimate song is a whole hearted take on “When You Wish Upon A Star”**, delivered perfectly straight with no hint of archness or irony. It’s beautiful. “The Dark Is Rising” was always going to be the closer, and so it proves. This final flourish of doomed but hopeful romanticism and they’re done, save for a brief orchestral reprise of “A Stitch In Time”.
This gig was a magical, transporting, experience. I first saw Mercury Rev twenty six years ago, and since then they have consistently thrilled and elevated me, but last night was a whole other level. I’m so lucky to have seen this – there are only three shows on this tour, and I don’t suppose they’ll be repeating the format any time soon (imagine the cost!). Wonderful, beautiful stuff, real cosmic American music.
*(the time I saw them on the Deserters Songs tour they played Tugboat and Into My Arms and then encored with Cortez The Killer – I mean, come on!)
**told you there was a Disney influence
Big Jeff, obviously. A fellow in front of me seemed to be called Seventies Rock Man. At least, that’s how his lady friend addressed him.
It made me think..
I hope they release a recording of these shows.