Gig review: Mercury Rev at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Tours dedicated to bands (often revived for this very purpose after a period of inactivity or waning fortunes) recreating their most revered album is hardly a fresh concept.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 18th December 2018, 6:49 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th December 2018, 6:53 pm
Mercury Rev
Mercury Rev

It’s unlikely that many acts have managed to approach the task with as much warmth, insight and creative zeal as Mercury Rev manage to pull off during tonight’s triumphant 20th anniversary cruise through 1998’s career peak Deserters’ Songs.

Anyone expecting the New York State-based psych-rock heroes to somehow cram the manpower required to faithfully recreate the soaring orchestrations of what must count as one of the most enduring masterpieces of 1990s is in for a disappointment. In a captivating twist, tonight’s beautiful set isn’t about presenting the band’s greatest triumph as it was.

Rather, Mercury Rev (now centred on frontman Jonathan Donohue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak, whose impressive guitar hero chops – in the spotlight on a recent instrumental collaboration with 60s folk guitar cult hero Peter Walker under the Harmony Rockets banner – prove one of tonight’s most exciting revelations) rewind back to the moment when the never entirely stable band’s existence was most in doubt.

1995’s See You On The Other Side failed to connect with any audience in such a comprehensive way it almost broke the band. According to one of the many revealing and simultaneously funny and tragic anecdotes Donohue peppers tonight’ set with, when he and Grasshopper retreated to an attic in the Catskills Mountains to work on the follow-up, it was to be the band’s last record. It’s these stripped back, embryonic forms of the songs which would bloom into richly arranged, dreamy epics reminiscent of twisted Disney movie themes that tonight’s semi-acoustic presentation sets out to recreate.

Opener Funny Bird establishes the theme by turning the album version’s turbulent space rock into a wounded and deeply moving folk lament that somehow manages to sound defiantly powerful whilst toying with evaporating altogether. Culminating in an immensely beautiful, drawn-out take on Holes, during which the gaps between the notes are allowed to linger, and taking in an unexpectedly heartfelt cover of Pavement’s Here, the set’s resolute lack of bombast could easily have the crowd grow restless. Instead, the sold-out Brudenell remains intently focused on every note.

Just as the folky introspection risks becoming a bit too taxing, the main set closing Opus 40 blooms into a pounding, psychedelic meltdown that provides a glimpse of Mercury Rev’s noisier early incarnation. After that, a soaring take on The Dark Is Rising – the only non-Deserters’ Songs tune played tonight, understandably but slightly disappointingly for a band whose most recent album, 2015’s The Light In You, was a definite return to form – brings to a close proceedings which prove that revisiting the past can be the opposite of a musty nostalgia trip.