Meltdown: Mercury Rev, Royal Festival Hall, London
Masterfully constructed, the show astonishes because the band can continually scale new peaks
Tuesday 02 July 2002
The affinity that this year's Meltdown curator David Bowie feels for Jonathan Donahue's sonic adventurers, isn't hard to understand. It's not just that Mercury Rev have worked with longtime Bowie associate, arranger/producer Tony Visconti, though the connection surely helped when it came to booking them for this evening's performance. As the most celebrated rock'n'roll chameleon of the past 30 years, Bowie must have swooned when he saw how Donahue transforms his character over the course of a performance, without so much as a costume change or a lick of greasepaint.
Bowie has been criticised for his over-cautious choice of acts for Meltdown, and it's true that tonight's set offers no material not heard on last year's Mercury Rev shows. But, centred on the towering Rev "comeback" albums, Deserter's Songs and All is Dream, it is a performance that shows the group are more keenly attuned than they've ever been to the resonances of dreamy yearning, occult dread and swooning wonder that course through their songs.
Shrouded in dry ice, Donahue cuts a wraithlike figure, his presence engendering a quasi-religious fervour from the enraptured audience. Eight years ago, his band was almost finished, collapsing under the combined strain of drug problems, declining sales and mounting debts. But, songs such as "Goddess on a Hiway" and "Tides of the Moon" provide shining examples of rock's recuperative potential. Constantly smiling between songs, Donahue wears the look of a man genuinely gratified to have a second chance, and determined to make full use of it.
The astonishing music allows him to emerge as a charismatic front man with an acute understanding of rock as ritualised spectacle. Either side of the stage, a keyboard player and a synthesiser player open up grand vistas and deep chasms, musical wonderlands that range from Disney- style fantasy to Dante-esque horror. The ever-shaded guitarist, Grasshopper unleashes blood-and-fire salvos, while Donahue's reedy falsetto conjures resilience and purity out of transfixing psychodramas.
Psychedelia is a much-abused term, but Donahue's explorations of the subconscious and far-flung flights of the imagination make the Rev the most potent exponents of the genre still extant. Masterfully constructed, the show astonishes because the band can continually scale new peaks. "Goddess on a Hiway" is like a Chuck Berry car-driving song as remodelled by Philip K Dick, stretching out into a sensurround rhapsody. "Opus 40" glories in subterranean explosions and wired-to-the-moon pyrotechnics, Donahue crouched down, tearing several shades of destruction from his guitar, while the predatory bass, drums and keyboards hover as if waiting for the kill.
During a segue into Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime", the thought occurs that, after such glory, they might find themselves wondering what they will do to top it. An unscheduled, but curiously flat, encore of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" confirms that it will soon be time for them to go away and dream it all up again. A formidable task, but if any band can do it, Mercury Rev can.
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