Mercury Rev, The Junction, Cambridge

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The Independent Culture

Light-hearted banter was as unexpected from the spooky front man Jonathan Donahue as charisma was from John Kerry, yet there was palpable end-of-tour levity as his band wound up their week-long UK visit, which had taken in three nights supporting Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in London and a television appearance.

Light-hearted banter was as unexpected from the spooky front man Jonathan Donahue as charisma was from John Kerry, yet there was palpable end-of-tour levity as his band wound up their week-long UK visit, which had taken in three nights supporting Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in London and a television appearance.

"How was Nick Cave?" asked an audience member of another artist who wore only black. In reply, Donahue came up with a decent impression of the voiceover to some cheap western movie. "He was dark. He was brooding. He was very tall."

And later: "How was Jools Holland?"

"He was dark. He was brooding..."

Last-night fever partly explained the levity, but Donahue was also comfortable with the new material unveiled on tour, and pleased that people came out on a Sunday to hear it. It all seemed a bit unexpected for the thin-voiced, skinny singer, who decorated his mic stand with a coiling snake and a flower.

Such arcane imagery became a strong feature of his lyrics on the last album from this band from upstate New York, 2001's rococo confection All Is Dream. That sounded like John Barry had arranged The Flaming Lips, in which Donahue once played guitar. He's never been keen to unlock the code to his lyrics, but as the music has been so powerful, few have felt the need to reach for Jungian textbooks.

The follow-up, The Secret Migration, is due out in January, and from the outset these numbers were more immediate and forceful. "Secret for a Song" was as strong an anthem as anything from their breakthrough album Deserter's Songs, while "In the Wilderness" was the most intense they have been since the early days.

All this was achieved with a trimmed line-up. Instead of touring with two keyboardists to replicate the sweep of All Is Dream, the drummer, Jeff Mercel, took over on one set of keys. The guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak had plenty of room then for his chiming guitar parts. Not only did this tighter group have more power, they could also play with more subtlety, with elegant piano lines to the fore on "Black Forest".

These numbers continued the surrealism of their predecessors, but while All Is Dream was cobwebs and darkness, the new songs were much lighter affairs. "In a Funny Way" was their most summery song to date, and brought to mind nothing less than an arrangement for one of Phil Spector's girl groups. Fitted around these were some of the less bombastic tunes from All Is Dream. "Tides of the Moon" benefited from fresh impetus, with Donahue adding an "all" to the line, "It ties you to me" as if to say we were all under his spell.

Yet the biggest cheers were for the triumphant numbers from Deserter's Songs. There was a charming "Tonite It Shows", with the bass player on second keyboard after Donahue had shocked us by roaring his way through "Holes". These tales of friendships betrayed and broken up remain the band's most affecting songs. Still, Mercury Rev's dreams continue to enhance our reality.

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