Gig review: Mercury Rev at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Jonathan Donohue of Mercury Rev at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. Picture: Ross McGibbon
Jonathan Donohue of Mercury Rev at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. Picture: Ross McGibbon
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Were a textbook example of diminishing returns following a jackpot release ever required, Mercury Rev’s trajectory during the last 17 years would provide a compelling case study.

1998’s much-adored Deserter’s Songs, which reined in the psychedelic sprawl of their earlier releases to unveil a startlingly original alt. rock reimagining of the Old Weird American Music, was one of the - if not the - most celebrated albums of its year. Subsequent releases fell gradually shorter of inspiring similar enthusiasm, until the band seemed to wind down operations entirely.

Until now; tonight’s show at the sold-out Brudenell marks Mercury Rev’s first UK date since the completion of the brand-new, well-received The Light In You. Whatever singer Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper – Mercury Rev’s songwriters, sole original members and, in the absence of long-time collaborator Dave Friedman, producers – have been up to during their seven year absence from the studio and (largely; there were gigs to mark the expanded reissue of Deserter’s Songs in 2011) the stage, it’s not resulted in an ounce of flab.

Despite the ample charms of the uncharacteristically poppy song, opener Are You Ready’s canned multitudes of string- and children’s choir-laden candyfloss and muddled sound don’t bode well for the evening. By A Funny Bird, however, the pre-recorded elements fade and the five-piece reach full flight.

The song’s eerie atmospherics remain intact, but there’s added oomph to the sound, with Grasshopper’s spirited guitar-baiting, often lost in the multi-tracked mist on the band’s albums, proving especially impressive. Donahue’s also on fine form. It’s easy to feel cynical about gushing announcements of a ‘it’s great to be here’ variety, but the singer – whose high-pitched vocals prove sturdier than expected in the flesh – seems genuinely thrilled to be in front of an enthusiastic crowd again.

When not engaging in Merlin-like hand movements to conjure another soaring crescendo or cymbal-bashing with the neck of his guitar to embellish a particularly pressing point, Donahue is frequently found staring wide-eyed into the distance, as if he’s become just as hypnotised by the increasingly more insistent and intense sounds the band’s whipping up as the capacity crowd.

Which wouldn’t be surprising. As Opus 40 builds into extended, abrasive coda The Band-esque, meticulously layered original barely hinted at, following a steaming jam that Tides of the Moon blooms into, you might wonder why Donahue and Grasshopper bother with all the studio gloss that’s the occasional bane of the new album, choice cuts from which fit seamlessly alongside fan favourites such as Holes, Car Wash Hair and the none-more-dramatic final encore The Dark Is Rising tonight.

Towards the end, there’s a fine cover of Sparklehorse’s Sea of Teeth. As well as a tribute to late bandleader Mark Linkous, the selection could be seen to hark back to a point in the late 90’s when cosmic American alt. rock of Mercury Rev and likeminded peers ruled supreme. Judging by tonight’s impeccable, spirited and powerful performance, the veteran New York State outfit’s glory days are taking place right now.

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