Mercury Rev sends club crowd into orbit

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By Mark Guarino

The paralyzing temperatures and iced sidewalks entombed Lincoln Ave. for what was a standard Chicago winter night.

But it took just pulling the door handle of a snug North Side rock club to enter an entirely different world, one thick with steaming heat and cast in what felt like orbital flight.

The conduit was Mercury Rev, a perennial American band that has quietly crafted a meticulous body of work that is strange, surrealistic, romantic and driven by storybook wonder. They were elements strongly at play at Martyrs Thursday, when the band used a mixture of multimedia, computer programs and old-fashioned organic musicianship to present their super-sized songs.

The band hails from Kingston, N.Y., a small, gritty city at the base of the Catskill Mountains along the Hudson River, a region that has long been a refuge for adventuresome industrialists and, much later, utopian seekers. The middle ground between both realities surfaces in how the band makes music: Over two decades they have swung between dense, rootsy Americana and psychedelic grandeur.

The band remains an underground favorite here despite having a bigger profile in the U.K., where they have more in common with bands like Radiohead. The Martyrs audience was just at near capacity and, by the music’s scope, should have been at a room three times it size. But that didn’t seem of chief concern to the band, which played to its devoted following like it was commanding a stadium.

Everything about the 16-song, nearly 90-minute show was designed for transporting the senses. Fog, lasers, and projected film images were choreographed to compliment the lushly arranged songs from “Snowflake Midnight” (Yep Roc), a new album. The five musicians, including core members Jeff Mercel on drums, guitarist Grasshopper (born Sean Mackowiak) and lead singer Jonathan Donahue, played to the whole sound, which often crested mightily, pulsating with electronics and acid-washed guitars.

Donahue portrayed a lead singer lost in the romanticism. Topped with a Caesar cut and sporting a thin beard, he provided an entry into the music as he interpreted lyrics with his continually moving arms and bug eyes. During one song dedication, he recalled being grateful for learning how “rock and roll didn’t have to end with Chuck Berry” and that he early in life he discovered he could pursue an offshoot that was “quite strange and more beautiful in some ways.”

This late career phase is agreeable with that insight. New songs like “Snowflake in a Hot World” and “People Are So Unpredictable” featured moments that sounded run through a blizzard of intense, swirling noise that became easy to get lost inside of and a perfect compliment to the spiritual bliss of Donahue’s lyrics.

Before the first encore, the band played a song that was familiar, but strangely so: It was “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads; although slowed and hazy, the song sounded more troubling than the original, the suburban narrator’s existential alarm suddenly pushed into cacophony.

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