Mercury Rev, The Barbican, London, 14th July 2017

Mecury Rev have a sound that is often described as symphonic, so this appearance at The Barbican with the Royal Northern Sinfonia offers a real chance to hear the huge sounds of their albums as they were meant to be. Surprisingly there’ll be nothing from Secret Migration, perhaps the bands most symphonic album to date. Mercury Rev’s last album – 2015’s The Light In You – appeared after a seven year break and was their first for Bella Union,and this very special appearance at The Barbican also forms part of the Bella Union 20th Birthday party. Although ever hopeful, this reviewer recalls that the Bella Union 10th Birthday celebrations didn’t feature cake. However, as on that previous occasion, Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde – also, of course, of the Cocteau Twins – was scheduled to join Mercury Rev on stage. Keeping with the family affair theme the Royal Northern Sinfonia are also fast becoming the Bella Union house band – they’ve previously toured and recorded with John Grant and Lanterns on the Lake.

Danish dream-Pop group Lowly opened the night. They are the embodiment of a Bella Union band: guitar, drums, two synthesiser players and a lead singer who mixes up a Siouxsie Sioux stage presence with vocals that drift out dark and disturbing. The rest of the band sport a more casual jeans and a t-shirt look rather than the dressed for the murder part of a Scandi-murder thriller style of Soffie Viemose. Ever in motion guitarist Nanna Schannong also adds vocals, as well as slightly shoe-gazey guitar, with additional layers of sound coming from recorded spoken word or found sounds. It makes for a hypnotic experience, which really catches fire as the stage darkens leaving just a couple of bright back-lights and the science fiction movie layers of synthesisers and strange sounds take Lowly into a literally dark space. Just as another song was starting, building on a delicate guitar intro, Lowly were rather incongruously shooed from the stage – paying the price of coming on five or so minutes late, but joking that there’s a chance to hear the rest of the song when they return to the UK at the end of November for a string of dates.

Once the couple of dozen players making up the orchestra were in place Mercury Rev main-men Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper (Sean Mackowlack), with Simon Raymonde adding an additional guitar on the front row, joined them to open with Central Park East, one of the most heartbreaking songs from the last Mercury Rev album The Light In You. It’s a song which swoops with wings of melancholy as Donahue sings of being “the only lonely boy to ever walk in Central Park” and captures that feeling of being totally alone and bereft of love no matter how many others one may be walking among. Everything becomes autumnal, everything feels like forever,and Jonathan Donahue embodies these feelings, expressing them through his every gesture alongside his haunting high vocals “wondering, where we went wrong / And if I’ll ever get another / Chance to dream along”. It’s gorgeous, and the orchestra underline that perfection. It’s rather redundant to praise their playing – these cats are trained full time musicians after all – but Donahue shines a different light on this in several between song chats starting by stating that he is the only person on stage who can’t read music “not a note”. The contrast between Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper couldn’t be more marked – the latter is besuited and maintains an air of aloof cool throughout the concert whilst the former appears as a cross between Dion and Jeremy Corbyn. Donahue is also openly enjoying every moment – the orchestra are his plaything as he wildly conducts – despite not knowing what the gestures are meant to convey – and demonstrably encourages the percussion to greater efforts. He embodies the songs, punctuating questioning lyrics with wide-eyed stares, he balances on one leg, he gesticulates to emphasise points. It’s all incredibly engaging because of the obvious enthusiasm for the music, and the recognition that this isn’t an everyday gig.

That this is also the Bella Union celebration is not forgotten, and a few songs in there is something of a side-step to recognise Simon Raymonde, and to talk about his father Ivor Raymonde who worked with and wrote songs for Dusty Sprinfield. One of these songs – I wish I never loved you – is sung by fellow Bella Union artiste Hollie Macve, it benefits from the orchestral backing as it’s one of those early sixties full-on orchestrated pop tearjerkers. And massed strings remain the key on Endlessly – the song takes on almost an early seventies Nilsson feel, something drenched in those sweetly arranged Buckmaster strings. And if they add an extra layer of sweetness to Endlessly then they transform Racing the Tide, a song from See you on the other side – the third Mercury Rev album. There’s an obvious interpretation to lyrics like “I’m so close / I’m almost inside / It won’t be long / Before the mystery is mine” but that’s so prosaic – an alternative is to see it as describing a striving for heightened consciousness and a more spiritual awareness. It could, of course, be both. Another side step – and perhaps an unexpected one – is There you are, performed as a rock band, the orchestra resting this one out. It thrums with Jonathan Donahue’s acoustic guitar, and delicately sets up the last part of the set, drawn from All is Dream and Deserter’s Songs.

Holes is Mercury Rev at their most plaintive – it’s so beautiful and so sad. It’s like the distillation of the sound of people dropping out of your life, broken friendships, decayed love affairs, the final passage into unbeing. Opus 40 takes us to the world seen as a dream world, making the smallest thing magical. Magic is at the core of Mercury Rev as they are today – and a very straight reading of When you wish upon a star is surely meant as the key to this band, which admittedly has no cricket, but does have a grasshopper. Jonathan Donahue confirms this – stating that they’ve been doing children’s albums all along. Can this be credited ? Not really – but maybe childlike if that means seeing the world with a child’s openness to new experiences and accepting different ways of seeing things. For all that it takes its title from Susan Cooper’s book series, The Dark is Rising is hardly a child’s song. Rather it encapsulates all that is so perfect about Mercury Rev – the longing in waking to find the strength one has in
dreams, the wistful wish for life’s acts to mirror how one would have written them if one only had the time. There’s something so moving about the juxtaposition of lyrics like “I never dreamed I’d hurt you / I never dreamed I’d lose you / In my dreams, I’m always strong” with the series of massive orchestral crescendos that punctuate the song, until that final few lines impinge an irresistible sadness “I always dreamed I’d love you / I never dreamed I’d lose you / In my dreams, I’m always strong”. It’s the perfect end to a perfect, and memorable, concert.

Set List

Central Park East
A drop in time
Downs are feminine balloons
Tonite it shows
Hercules
I wish I never loved you
Endlessly
Racing the tide
There you are (no orchestra)
Holes
Spiders & Flies
Opus 40
Wish upon a Star
The Dark is Rising
A drop in time (orchestral reprise)

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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