LIVE REVIEW: Mercury Rev @ OAF

MERCURY REV, JAMES DELA CRUZ (DJ SET) @ Oxford Art Factory, 07 December 2015


Eschewing the usual opening band, the warm-up honours went to James Dela Cruz (The Avalanches) who played an eclectic hour long DJ set that stretched from Neil Young to warm techno flows and some fine turntablism skills.

FEPX1684Mercury Rev hold a fairly unique position in music with their fantastical, dramatic sound that hits both the extremes of shoegaze and the fragile beauty of Catskill Mountains Americana. This was quite possibly the smallest venue the band have played in Australia so it was a chance for fans to experience them in full flight in relatively intimate surrounds. From a sea of dry ice pierced by dreamy washes of blue light emerged Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper and their bassist, drummer and keyboardist/flautist. What followed was the full Mercury Rev experience that was in no way downsized or compromised for the club venue. Their recently released album The Light In You got a fair showing in the setlist but they know that their audience peaked with the seminal Deserters Songs album. Early fans were treated to Frittering from Yerself Is Steam (1991) but it was tracks from the aforementioned album that drew the biggest cheers from the enthusiastic crowd. Holes, Goddess On A Hiway and Opus 40 were exquisite in their delivery with Donahue commanding the centre of the stage with conductor flourishes and grand gestures like a magician conjuring up some dramatic illusion. Opus 40 rounded out the main set with an extended and accelerated surge into sheets of distortion with a sonic dizziness that seemed to spin the room on its axis.

Mercury Rev were art rock in dazzling glory, almost too grandiose for the small setting but they never overcooked it. The mystery in their music had the audience immersing themselves in its dark romance while at the same time trying to figure out just how they create such an ornate and wonderful sound from their standard rock band format.

Chris Familton

MERCURY REV: The Director & The Cinematographer



Grasshopper and singer Jonathan Donahue have been at the core of Mercury Rev from the very beginning, enduring multiple line-up changes and a constant refinement of their expansive sound. Their new album The Light in You comes out shortly before they head our way for festival and headline shows and the new collection of songs comes out of a particularly turbulent recent times for both musicians.

“The arc of the album is the story of a person in a desperate or lonely kind of way and then by the end of the record, with the song ‘Rainy Day Record’, it’s the redemption or illumination that comes from slapping on a vinyl record and falling in love with the music you grew up with all over again. That was kind of what the two of us were going through and the music got us through that. The tough stuff was that Jonathan lost his house and pretty much everything he owned in Hurricane Irene and with me after Snowflake Midnight (2008) my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease and so she’s been living with my wife and I and she’s got worse and worse with her memory. Jonathan has known her for 20 years so it’s just been hard on everybody when that happens and you see somebody losing it.”

As important as the lyrical narrative is the widescreen psychedelic sound of Mercury Rev which, as Grasshopper explains, is present in the detail and arrangements right at the start of the songwriting process.

“Jonathan is like the director and I’m the cinematographer trying to capture it. We talk about in film language and visually how we see the songs. When we’re sitting around with two guitars and singing melodies we create what we envisage the strings sounding like or the bells or glockenspiel. It’s in the back of our mind all the time.”

Deserter’s Songs was a landmark album for Mercury Rev that took them from underground status to heroes of some cosmic Americana, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Its success also caught the band by surprise.

“It was really special to us. With ‘Everlasting Love’ on See You On The Other Side we thought we had a top ten hit and we listen to it now and think “what the fuck were we thinking!”. When you’re in the middle of it you don’t really know. You just try to stay true to yourself and try to get out the core of what’s in side of you. When we started Deserter’s Songs we didn’t have a label and halfway through we signed to V2 Records and then we had a deadline to finish it. We did it and thought we’d just have to wait and see what happens. We listened to it and were both elated and scared and then it took off and had a life of its own which was strange. Six months later we’re in England and hearing it in cabs, on the radio and in Sainsbury’s. It was surreal and unexpected. It’s hard to know what’s going to connect with people. A lot of it is timing I guess, it hits a part of people’s lives or it hits the zeitgeist of the time.”