Mercury Rev: Live At The Oval Space
“Invention….does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” Mary Shelley.
“We just knew (chords) E to A. It was a maelstrom.” Jonathan Donahue, Mercury Rev, last night.
It’s funny how the most chaotic of circumstances can give rise to the most beautiful of things. Listening last night to the music of Jonathan Donahue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak, the two founder members of Mercury Rev, as one ethereal, orchestral masterpiece after another floated around East London’s Oval Space, you might never suspect they have a past so turbulent it makes the last days of Rome appear positively civilised.
Mercury Rev formed in the late 1980s in Buffalo, New York. Like The Replacements a decade before them, they thrived on being the most shambolic version of themselves. They took pride in never rehearsing and constantly argued, particularly lead vocalist Dave Baker who by all accounts could start an argument in an empty room. Their first gig was in front of seventy people. Their second was in support of Bob Dylan, in front of considerably more.
Imagine that. Your second ever gig and you are supporting Bob Dylan, and not only that, but you can see Dylan at the side of the stage watching you, and presumably tutting and wondering how the hell you managed to get yourself on his bill.
Just how shambolic was shambolic?
Well, when band member (and later, producer) Dave Fridmann, who subsequently left to work with the Flaming Lips, secured Mercury Rev’s record contract, he spent part of the advance sending his mother to Bermuda on holiday. You can picture how that conversation went down with the rest of the band:
Dave Fridmann: “Great news! We’ve signed a record deal!”
The rest of Mercury Rev: “Yay! How much is the advance?”
Dave Fridmann: (shifts uncomfortably in his seat) “Er…well, there’s good news and bad news…”
The rest of Mercury Rev: “Okaaay, what’s the good news..?”
Dave Fridmann: “um, I’ve got this lovely postcard from mom, she says the weather’s lovely….”
Somehow, Jonathan Donahue’s persistence and songwriting talent, not to mention work ethic, secured a record deal that gave birth to debut album “Yerself Is Steam”, featuring “Frittering”, played tonight.
Out of chaos, beauty.
Meanwhile, the band continued to fracture.
A few songs into tonight’s show, a microphone accidentally dropped to the floor mid-song, and it gave Donahue an opportunity to reminisce. He tactfully described David Baker, as “eccentric” and added “with David…you never knew when he’d sing the song or when he’d go to the bar”, something that actually did occur mid-set during an early UK tour
“That s what led to (album title) “See You On The Other Side” because you never knew what would happen. Sometimes he would drop the mic….and you would see the crowd part…”
I guess it’s thirsty work being a front man…
And as for those early shows?
“We didn’t know how to play. A great solo would qualify if you just walked closer to the amp. Especially if you didn’t smash the guitar afterwards.”
“Career move? The jury’s still out…”
It wasn’t all bad. A year later and Mercury Rev were on the bill at Reading Festival in front of 20,000 people. They were still arguing and refusing to practice.
By 1995 Baker had left, after another band argument on an aeroplane ended in an attempt to gouge out Grasshopper’s eye with a spoon.* It failed, but it’s a really rubbish way to settle an argument. Let’s face it, Baker was always on borrowed time after that: I don’t know about you, but I’d probably have brought it up quite a bit if he’d done it to me and we were still arguing….
“Absolutely no-one bought” the 1995 album “See You On The Other Side” according to Donahue, which was a tremendous pity, as in hindsight, it’s a remarkable album, showing early signs of the shape of things to come. Things took a distinct Spinal Tapesque turn when the band played at a “little theatre somewhere in Britain called the Penny Whistle. It seated 80 people. There was a puppet show on before us, and only four people showed up.”
The band split up.
Grasshopper did what any other self respecting rock guitarist on hiatus would have done, and booked himself into a Spanish Jesuit Monastery for six months.
Well, we’ve all done it.
Donahue meanwhile reportedly shook off the effects of either a nervous breakdown, a heroin addiction, or both.
Batteries recharged in 1998, Mercury Rev signed to V2 Records and retired to the Catskills Mountains to make another record. They teamed up with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band. “Deserters Songs” was the result, and it was one of the best albums by any band of the nineties. If there has been as impressive a resurrection anywhere outside of religious texts, I have yet to hear about it. It was quite some turnaround from this shambolic, argumentative bunch of stragglers, and songs from that album remain the mainstay of Mercury Rev’s live set today, with five songs represented.
Speaking of which, in a live setting Mercury Rev are more muscular than on album – perhaps because it’s hard to tour with a full orchestra and the paraphernalia that brings, albeit the touring band is bolstered by keyboards and an occasional flautist. Still, drummer Jason Miranda’s crashing cymbals, seemingly prompted by Jonathan Donahue’s theatrical movements coax great crescendos from what is often dramatic music. It’s a wonderful set including the dream-like “You’re My Queen” and “Tides of the Moon”, both of which are from the follow up to “Deserter’s Songs”: the gorgeous “All is Dream”.
Once again, in the making of this album beauty came from chaos. The record was due to be produced by Jack Nitzsche, but he died a week before they were due to start. Grasshopper was mugged in New Orleans and had to play the solo to “Little Rhymes” with his arm in a sling. To top it all, the album was released on September 11th 2001.
As Donahue says. “It was freaky seeing the posters saying, ‘All Is Dream – released 9/11’, up there on the walls in New York City, covered with World Trade Centre dust. You couldn’t really get around the association.”
It’s still a beautiful album, however, and a majestic “The Dark Is Rising” closed the set tonight, Donahue casting magical spells like a demented wizard all around him.
Before this memorable finale, songs from new album “The Light In You” fitted into the set snugly. “Queen of Swans” and “Autumn’s In The Air” are as good as anything the band have done before. Coming some seven years after their last album it’s another impressive rebirth.
In 2015 Mercury Rev has new kinds of chaos to deal with now, including for Grasshopper the challenges of fatherhood, but that’s a good kind of chaos, and twenty five years after their shambolic second ever gig, opening for Bob Dylan, it looks like it is doing them no harm at all…
Set list: The Queen of Swans, The Funny Bird, Car Wash Hair, Autumn’s in the Air, Endlessly, Frittering, Are You Ready? You’re My Queen, Diamonds, Central Park East, Holes, Tides of the Moon, Opus 40, Goddess on a Hiway, The Dark Is Rising
* Interestingly, reports vary as to whether Baker or Donahue was the spoon-wielder. If the latter, it speaks well of Grasshopper’s tolerance levels…