Mercury Rev, The Howling Bells

Lewis Townsend 13/11/2008

Tonight is somewhat special. Kicking off with a slide show projecting images of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Neil Young, and the Flaming Lips circa 1993, various political and philosophical messages flash before us, all to the euphoric strains of Lorelei by the Cocteau Twins. So I've got goosebumps already.

As Lorelei fades out, people start clapping hopefully and shouting, until the awesome synth loop of Snowflake in a Hot World emanates through the venue. According to frontman Jonathan Donahue, such a loop was discovered after hours and hours of playing around with a random sound generator. So out the band enter, glowing, holding bottles of beers and wine, and they get straight down to business.

After entering into a frantic, driving pre-jam which seamlessly wanders into the song, everything calms down.

Don't let them tell you.. you're all the same, Donahue sings to us. Not to the ceiling, or the air above, but to us, a trait which he follows throughout the performance, picking out random members of the audience, and staring at them, pointing at them, smiling at them to the extent where people didn't know whether to smile back and stare him out.. or look away nervously.

Before long, the piano/synth combination of Holes comes into earshot, and when people start to applaud, Donahue smiles, as if he genuinely can't believe people like it so much.

And so the pattern emerges. A barely interrupted set (with the exception of a girl screaming Goddess on a Hiway!, and Jonathon shouting Hello friends! It's so great to be back! after which he turned to look at his band, cueing them for the sonic explosions that followed.

In terms of performance, the songs themselves represent quite a contrast to the nature of the songs of the previous album, The Secret Migration [2005]. Rather than being four minute offerings of simple loveliness, Rev gave lengthy mutations of their widely set songs that found themselves on the setlist. Tides of the Moon gets an eerie intro which erupts into a powerful bass driven groove before Donahue echoes: The threads, that run through your life, hang from your sleeves.. before transcending into an intense outro that you won't have heard on the album it emanates from [All is Dream, 2001].

Tides of the Moon was not an exception to the rule. You're My Queen stretches from two minutes and a half to around the ten minute mark, throwing out invigorating, albeit slightly drawn out riffs. But hey, to each their own.

Two songs on the most recent album were performed beyond beautifully: Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower and People Are So Unpredictable, both transforming and moulding themselves back and forth, from freaky breathing and ambience, to orchestrated synth, to pumping and grinding beats.

After relentless song transition after transition, the band reveal Opus 40 as their closer, which runs quite nicely into an epic cover of Talking Heads' Once in a Lifetime.

Sweaty, exhausted and slightly drunk, Donahue shouts How did I get here!?!... How did I get -here-, how did -I- get here?

As their goodbye, the band line up, laughing, bowing and clapping, before playfully returning to boldly treat us to three encores: The blissfully sad Goddess on a Hiway, the glimmer of hope, that is the extremely well sung The Dark is Rising and a heavy, very piercing rendition of Senses on Fire.

So, the question 'Were the band tight?' is as irrelevant as 'Did they cover Scouting for Girls?', because I heard someone say after the Birmingham show, Well… That was very sonic! I think for the most part, that's the best explanation that can be offered. Mercury Rev live is an intense, joyful - but at times sad - experience, with the true potential to actually, genuinely make your hair stand right on end.


Snowflake in a Hot World
October Sunshine
Black Forest
The Funny Bird
You're My Queen
People Are So Unpredictable
Tonite It Shows
Tides of the Moon
Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower
Opus 40
Once in a Lifetime [cover of Talking Heads]


Goddess on a Hiway
The Dark is Rising
Senses on Fire