Electric Ballroom, London, 9th August 2001
"Those funny little plans? that never work quite right" ran the opening track on Mercury Rev's 1998 classic, Deserter's Songs. Rightly lauded in many corners the album was a late runner for record of the 90s and preceded a rush of spatial, futuristic rock albums by The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy and even Scotland's excellent The Delgados. Their series of gigs in Dublin that year were exuberant affairs and a celebration of a band that had emerged victorious from a decade of drugs, breakdowns, commercial disasters and, bizarrely, time spent in a monastery? Those drugs really did work.
This gig in the Electric Ballroom in Camden was supposed to be a taster of the new album, 'All Is Dream', due later this month. I wasn't expecting any tunes from Deserter's - a supposition immediately, and gloriously, proven wrong when the band kicked into "The Funny Bird". With its distorted vocal, it reminds me still of late 70s Zeppelin and was a wonderful way to announce their return. The band bathed in a warm red backlight as guitarist Grasshopper hunched over this guitar, chopping out slabs of sound. The songs that followed, previewing the new album, were shrouded in Pink Floyd-esque guitar and a swirl of hammond organ and piano. A new number called "Nite And Fog" really seemed to explode on stage, while "Spiders and Flies" was a delicate, whimsical keyboard driven piece. The band sounded like a guitar cacophony in a wind tunnel - with Jonathan Donohue's Neil-Young-on-helium vocals straining over the top. It really was a huge noise.
What was interesting was the re-interpretation of some of Deserter's Songs. Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp became a 50s guitar romp with circus vaudeville keyboard. "Tonite It Shows" morphed in to a chunky power-pop ballad, complete with Jonathon hand-actions ("? the way I lit your cigarette?"), a beatific grin in his face. Opus 40, which finished the main set, evolved into a 10 minute space-age wig out with thunderous drums and scything guitar. Grasshopper clung to his instrument like it might escape from his grasp. The keyboards meshed and the Electric Ballroom rocked.
The encore was bizarre. The quivering saw that was evident all over Deserter's made a live appearance! Jonathon sat on his school-like plastic seat, bowing away on his tool, as the band played a delicate instrumental. Not an auspicious debut, I thought?
The gig finished with the opening track of the new album, "The Dark Is Rising". It immediately smacks of Neil Young and has a lilting, hummable melody. The song came to a throbbing crescendo with Jonathon standing in a crucifix pose for a long, long time. Very, very strange?
As a preview of the new album, I would think that it will be more guitar driven than Deserter's. That melodious grace is still there, that unique sumptuous wall-of-sound. Along with the new album from Wilco, it is my most highly anticipated release of the year.