Pairing the psych-kissed theatrics of Mercury Rev with the hush of Marissa Nadler’s Gothic folk music may seem like a weird combination.
Pairing the psych-kissed theatrics of Mercury Rev with the hush of Marissa Nadler’s Gothic folk music may seem like a weird combination but two exceptional acts in one evening, rather than enduring a less-than-excellent opener, is a rare treat. While Nadler brought us down with her ballads of sadness, it gave the effusive Mercury Rev the opportunity to lift spirits as the band revisited its much-loved 1998 masterwork, Deserter’s Songs.
Wearing a black dress and backed only by a guitarist, Nadler focused much of her short set on the music from For My Crimes, the Boston-based musician’s eighth album. According to Nadler, who has built a career on writing downbeat music, this recent batch of songs are among her saddest. Over 40 minutes, Nadler weaved her melancholy tales with songs such as “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore” and “Said Goodbye to that Car.” The audience listened to her set in respectful silence, giving Nadler the space to improvise when her guitarist blew a string on his 12-string. Nadler finished the performance with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Save Me a Place,” a haunting finish that could have been the perfect end to the evening, but in fact was just the “warm up.”
Although Mercury Rev was billed to play Deserter’s Songs in its entirety, it was unclear exactly what form the music would take. According to the band’s website, the show would feature stripped-down, acoustic versions of the songs performed in the “whisper and strum” of the original versions. However, the phalanx of instruments that filled the stage behind Nadler belied this description.
When the band took the stage and opened with “The Funny Bird,” the ninth track on Deserter’s Songs, it was clear Mercury Rev wasn’t going to play the album from front to back. Instead, Jonathan Donahue and company played a 14-song that not only featured all of Deserter’s Songs but allowed the band to “sneak in” some music from All is Dream and The Light in You, as well as a Neil Young cover.
Hearing the songs out of order was a prudent decision. Bands playing their best albums from front to back, followed by a smattering of other songs, is commonplace today. It is, however, a format that precludes any of the suspense that comes with not knowing what comes next during a concert. Mercury Rev re-injected some of this suspense, following “The Funny Bird” with “Tonite it Shows” and then veering to The Light in You track “Central Park East.” In essence, the band was able to honor its seminal album on its 20th anniversary without playing through it in workmanlike fashion.
At 52, Donahue still looks lithe, coiffed in a suit. He amped up the theatrical aspect of Mercury Rev’s music with his wide-eyed performance, making big hand gestures with one foot firmly planted on one of the monitors. Meanwhile, Grasshopper (and his killer soul patch) provided the guitar heroics stage left.
For those of us around when Deserter’s Songs debuted in 1998, the concert was a welcome blast of nostalgia. Yes, some of the live instrumentation such as the singing saw had been replaced by a synthesizer and Donahue’s voice suffers from the same late-era Wayne Coyne warble when reaching for the high notes, yet the concert was simply too much fun to worry about those details.
Beyond the Deserter’s Songs material, both “Tides of the Moon” and the set-closing “The Dark is Rising” were emotional highpoints, as was the straight reading of Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.” As he bid us farewell, Donahue flapped his arms and blew out as if he was the wind, pushing us out into the night. Marissa Nadler drew us in with her dark mysteriousness and Jonathan Donahue kissed us on the foreheads and sent us smiling into the night.