With Josh T. Pearson
Dan's Silverleaf, Denton
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Mercury Rev played at Dan’s Silverleaf Sunday night and sounded better than ever. The orchestral indie rock band with cinematic melodies brought a surprising intensity to their 90-minute set. Prone to unpredictable performances and infighting between band members in the past, there was no trace of drama during Mercury Rev’s stop in Denton.
The band kicked off the show with “The Queen of Swans,” the opening track and one of the strongest from their latest release, The Light in You. That album, the band's first in 7 years, was recorded without longtime producer David Fridmann. Fridmann, who's produced countless bands including Weezer, Spoon and MGMT, was a founding member of Mercury Rev and the band's original bass player.
But even without Fridmann, and without a live orchestra, the band sounded every bit as dramatic as it should. And, given the long break between albums, the line, “Sometimes years go by, it seems” from “The Queen of Swans” felt like a good way to start the show.
“Autumn’s in the Air,” another track from the new album, seemed to make direct references to frontman Jonathan Donahue’s Catskills cabin being flooded by Hurricane Irene. But rather than wallowing in despair, the song conveys a sense of hope in the aftermath of personal tragedy. Another new track, “Central Park East,” was a highlight, a classic Mercury Rev song with meditative lyrics.
Donahue’s vocals sound better live when they are thrown into the mix like another instrument instead of sitting on top of the music. Donahue had glitter in his beard, sang wide-eyed and seemed to conduct the band in the most exaggerated way possible. He said little in between songs until he paused to explain a cover by the Flaming Lips.
Back when Mercury Rev was in limbo, Donahue was the guitarist for the Flaming Lips (other longtime collaborators with Fridmann) for a couple years in the early '90s, appearing on two albums. He told amusing stories of meeting the band at a show they played with Butthole Surfers, how he quickly joined the group and what it was like to tour with them. The band duly including a Lips cover, but instead of playing a song from one of the early '90s albums Donahue appeared on, he decided to cover “Love Yer Brain,” a track from the Lips' second album, Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips.
Donahue seemed to surprise many by also mentioning that he lived in Denton on and off during the '80s, making the trip from New York by Greyhound bus. He even remembered seeing bands like Three on a Hill, the Buck Pets and Shallow Reign perform in Deep Ellum at the Theater Gallery.
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Unsurprisingly, Mercury Rev’s set was heavy on songs from their best-known album, 1998’s Deserter’s Songs. The album received widespread critical acclaim. In the U.K., the album was a commercial success, going gold on the strength of singles that showed up on English charts. Everything else in the band’s catalog seems to stand in the shadow of Deserter’s Songs.
But that may just be an indication of how underrated some of their other work is. Luckily, we also got to hear “Dark is Rising” and “Tides of Moon” from Mercury Rev’s criminally overlooked 2001 follow-up, All Is Dream. It was also great to hear some of the band’s earliest tracks, like “Frittering” from their 1991 debut album, Yerself is Steam, and “Car Wash Hair,” the title track from a 1992 EP. But it’s also kind of a shame to see this band fall back on songs from the ’90s, when Donahue’s songwriting skills have grown considerably since.
Nonetheless, Mercury Rev returned to North Texas and sounded more focused than ever. The band have a tumultuous history, but they have aged better than anyone could have predicted.