Review and Photography by John Bentley

Mercury Rev are currently on a short UK tour and this is the first of two sold-out nights at Leeds Brudenell Social Club. It’s a rather special tour celebrating the 20th Anniversary of their brilliant breakthrough album, ‘Deserter’s Songs’. What’s more they’ve dispensed with their trademark big band presentation and the tour promises a stripped-down and very personal performance of the album. There have been some great reviews of the tour and it’s a gig I’m really looking forward to.

Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Nicole Atkins is an American singer-songwriter from New Jersey and, to borrow the words of Leonard Cohen, she was born with a golden voice. It’s an incredibly rich and powerful voice, with shades of the great Emmylou Harris. In fact when the PA temporarily malfunctions during her song ‘Sleepwalking’, she sings beautifully and perfectly audibly without the microphone. Another advantage of this is that, with the reduced volume, the chatterboxes in the hall are finally forced to shut-up and listen.

Singing solo tonight, she tells us that normally she has a band in tow. She explains that when playing solo, it seems to work better if major chords are changed to minor. It works and it’s a powerful performance, finishing with a cover of Roy Orbison’s epic ‘Crying’. The song really suits her style and vocal range and the Orb is clearly a big influence on her singing and writing. Her most recent album is 2017’s ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’.

Nicole Atkins, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Forming in 1989, US indie band Mercury Rev produced a string of well-reviewed records that didn’t sell well. The band themselves regarded their well-crafted 1995 album ‘See You on the Other Side’ as their best work, but it wasn’t successful and 1998’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ was a last ditch effort and was what they thought would be their farewell album. Unexpectedly ‘Deserter’s Songs’ was a massive success in both critical and sales terms, for example, being NME’s album of the year. The album was largely written by core members Jonathan Donahue and Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak in the Catskill Mountains and the finished product, with its lush panoramic, cinematic sound, really is evocative and atmospheric and does conjure-up images of Winter, snow, pine trees and dark nights. Its sound also manages to be innovative and quirky (eg. musical saws and crackly old gramophones). The album certainly conjures up feelings of fragility, vulnerability, nostalgia and farewell, unsurprising as it was intended to be the Rev’s last recording. Previous live performances have involved assembling an expanded band to re-create the wide-expanse of the album, but this time there is a different approach.

For the anniversary tour Mercury Rev are stripped-back to a quartet. Jonathan and Grasshopper have in the touring band two very capable multi-instrumentalist musicians, Jesse Chandler (from Midlake – keyboards and flute) and JB Meijers (guitar and trumpet). Centre stage throughout, Jonathan is our genial host and narrator throughout the evening, guiding us through the album’s songs, which are not delivered in the order on the record. Between songs he explains the record’s evolution and generally muses philosophically on the band’s ups and downs in a charming and humble way, acknowledging their gratitude to the fans who have shown support by buying their music and going to their gigs. Thoroughly amiable, wearing a flat cap, a stubbly beard and a broad grin, Jonathan resembles a latter-day on-stage Leonard Cohen in both his affable manner and his appearance. Without pretension, he has the audience hanging on his every word.

Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Jonathan plays the musical saw: Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

The gig kicks-off with a delicate version of ‘Funny Bird’, with Jonathan on acoustic guitar and softly singing in his trademark thin, sometimes wavering high voice. In a beautiful ending, he gently plucks the last guitar chords while casting a beaming wide-eyed smile over the heads of the audience. The shyer Grasshopper has his first moment in the spotlight as he plays harmonica on ‘Tonite It Shows’. ‘I Collect Coins’ is one of the strange little instrumental pieces on the album and for this Jonathan sits and plays a saw with a bow. It must have been interesting when airport security scanned his baggage – clearly the saw wasn’t an item for hand-luggage.

Mid-set Jonathan introduces a cover song, Pavement’s classic ‘Here’. It’s a timeless gem from his record collection, he tells us. The song seems to fit Mercury Rev’s style perfectly and allows Grasshopper to extend into a bit of stylish guitar playing. At some other gigs they have also been covering Neil Young’s ‘Man Needs A Maid’. Meanwhile ‘Endlessly’ (with its seasonal musical nod to ‘Silent Night’) features a sublime blend of guitar and flute. The stripped-down version of the band handles the material beautifully, with keyboard / synth-player Chandler providing much of the ‘orchestral’ element that fills out the songs.

Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Jonathan praises the vibe of the Brudenell, which he describes as legendary with bands, which is presumably why Mercury Rev are doing two nights here. He talks about how ‘Deserter’s Songs’ was really the last throw of the dice for Mercury Rev back in 1998, with previous records having failed to sell. The current stripped-down tour is really a return to how the songs were originally conceived, with Jonathan and Grasshopper quietly strumming guitars and composing in an apartment late at night, trying to keep the noise down to avoid disturbing the neighbours. Back then they were suffering genuine self-doubt about the music, but were really encouraged to continue when The Chemical Brothers rang them, expressing a love for the Rev’s music and inviting them to contribute to the new Chemical Brothers album ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ (Rev’s input was the track ‘Private Psychedelic Reel’). Out of this despair ‘Deserter’s Songs’ finally emerged and brought Mercury Rev back from the brink.

‘Goddess On A Hiway’ is one of the most iconic tracks on the album and prompts a bit of audience sing-along. ‘Holes’ features some uplifting trumpet-playing. The final Deserters track is an extended version of ‘Opus 40’: it has impressive shimmering guitar and piano and features tour manager and former Sunday’s member Patrick Hannan drumming. The band extend the song into a lengthy riffing drone and finish with some feedback. Jonathan had previously joked that early Rev songs were often finished with feedback when other ideas ran out. With the Deserters album covered and the gig drawing to an end it’s getting time for farewells. “By the way, that was f***ing awesome” shouts out someone from the wings. There is laughter and big appreciative smiles from the stage. The band are obviously having fun, enjoying the intimacy of the gig and the warmth of the audience. The finale is a beautifully sensitive and extended rendering of career highlight ‘The Dark Is Rising’, a song that wasn’t on ‘Deserters Songs’ but, says Jonathan, maybe should have been.

Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

It could have been a disaster reducing Mercury Rev’s characteristic big symphonic sound in such a no-trappings way and it must have consequently put a lot of pressure on Jonathan, being more prominently centre stage throughout. However, Mercury Rev have really pulled it off tonight and, as the audience wag said, they were truly awesome. What a way to end 2018 – probably my gig of the year.

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.

Grasshopper and Jonathan sign albums: Mercury Rev, Leeds Brudenell Social Club

2 Responses to “Mercury Rev + Nicole Atkins at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, UK – 13th December 2018”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Sounds great, John. Wish I’d gone now!

  2. john bentley Says:

    Thanks, Andrew. Great gig. You could have come, I had a plus one guest pass!

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