- by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date: Label:
Christmas is fast approaching but I’m feeling distinctly un-festive. Let’s see if going to see Mercury Rev at the Brudenell Social Club can fix that. Jonathan Donahue and Co are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Deserter’s Songs with some special, stripped-back performances.
Even the staunchest Christmas curmudgeon couldn’t turn down the chance to see such a seminal LP performed in such an intimate setting. After all, the graceful, wintery textures of Deserter’s Songs always did feel somewhat Christmassy.
First of all, we’re introduced to New Jersey singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins. Usually found with a full band in tow, Atkins hits the stage tonight with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and her voice for company. A rich and powerful voice that holds me, and the rest of the Brudenell, happily hypnotised.
Her recorded output might go in different directions yet here, stripped-back, the songs feel defiantly and unashamedly country. Between songs Atkins is laid back and genuinely funny, cracking a few jokes and telling us some anecdotes before letting her songs explore love, loneliness and the comfort provided by music itself.
During the likes of ‘Hotel Plaster’ and the wonderful ‘A Little Crazy’, her voice takes off and flows through every inch of the silently stunned venue. There’s some real goose bumps, and a little audience participation, when we’re transported to Club Silencio for a stellar cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’. No, I’ve just got something in my eye, honest.
Appearing wide-eyed, Mercury Rev’s performance is charged with a kind of magnetic, positive energy from the very start. Donahue can’t keep the smile from his face. The idea of an anniversary show might occasionally equate with images of exhausted rock stars, lethargically going through the motions. That certainly isn’t the case tonight as the band takes us on an intimate journey through the back-pages of Deserter’s Songs.
“It’s been 20 years, we get that” begins a jovial Donahue “but looking around, you guys look amazing”. The audience laugh (and perhaps blush a little), the Rev winning us over before they’ve even played a note. Donahue regales us with anecdotes and explanations providing plenty of humour and further context for these remarkable songs.
‘The Funny Bird’ slowly lowers us into the night. Stripped of the percussion and studio effects it’s barely recognisable yet even more beautiful in its simplified form. Donahue tells us how we’re going to hear the songs how they were originally written, fragile and free from the “Disney” like effects of the LP. A romantic and quietly breath-taking ‘Tonite it Shows’ comes next and I’m fully immersed in the performance.
The album is re-ordered and re-arranged, whispered to us with acoustic strums, keyboard, harmonica and Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak’s subtly hypnotic lead guitar. At times the songs recall the hushed melancholy of the Velvet Underground at their most contemplative, taking me to a similarly magical place. The gorgeous ‘I Collect Coins’ comes complete with a rather lovely musical-saw solo while the sleepy majesty of ‘Endlessly’ could melt even the stoniest of hearts.
This is what happens when you have a collection of songs that could clearly fill a stadium but you choose to perform them with soul rather than bombast. An emotional cover of Pavement’s zen-like, eternally wonderful ‘Here’ proves to be genuinely spellbinding. The mysterious, nocturnal magic of ‘Holes’ might just be my highlight of the night. It’s a song that seems to really connect with me without ever revealing all its secrets.
I only realise how quiet the whole performance has been when the band let loose on a genuinely explosive rendition of ‘Opus 40’. Is this really the first time there’s been drums all night? The band submerging us in loud, wig-out psychedelia as the song stretches out into a long, spine-tinging instrumental storm. They end with the glorious, heart-breaking yet hopeful ‘The Dark is Rising’ from All is Dream, Donahue conducting the epic final moments and pushing the positive energy out into the crowd.
Donahue describes how the band had hit a low before releasing Deserter’s Songs, the lingering melancholy apparent in the gentle, late night mood of the album. There’s something quietly redemptive about these songs, the cracks of light appearing after the darkest of times. Tonight has been an emotional, heartfelt and unforgettable performance. And yes, it was pretty Christmassy too.