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Mercury Rev With The Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Barbican - live review

Mercury Rev team up with The Royal Northern Sinfonia for a night to remember in London

A crowd at a prog gig
(Image: © Katja Ogrin)

Jonathan Donahue seems awestruck by the skills of the orchestra behind him. “Amazing!” he sighs. “What’s also amazing,” he continues, “is the urge to conduct…”

And despite a laughing acknowledgement that he has no idea how it works, he can’t resist joining in when he’s not singing.

At the climax, in a moment surely untarnished by premeditation, he produces a blue lightsabre and takes over the podium with the enthusiasm of Tigger. He’s already explained that Mercury Rev’s music embraces the childlike. “If I’m honest, most of our records are children’s records. We relate to the childhood experience.”

There’s a sweetness and innocence to their songs tonight, rearranged for the 20-piece orchestra, which confirm that. Buffalo, New York’s Mercury Rev have come a long way since this reviewer attended their home town debut gig in 1991 among an audience of four, which included the guitarist’s mum. Their career as experimental psychedelic noiseniks then unexpectedly took off, before they streamlined and rebooted with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, the simple melodic whimsy of which – to their shock – was hailed as a transcendent classic. The core of Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper have enjoyed a low-key level of success since.

Tonight they’re celebrating 20 years of Bella Union and are joined onstage by their label head Simon Raymonde, once of Cocteau Twins, and introduced by the singer as “the Grand Vizier of all things ethereal”. As the venue makes up in sound quality what it lacks in atmosphere, the evening isn’t short on beautiful noise. The ensemble dip into most phases from The Rev’s back catalogue, albeit more frequently into the later, prettier stuff than those early anti-music forays. From the recent Central Park East, back through highlights like Hercules, Racing The Tide, the ever-popular Holes and fan favourite Opus 40, it’s a delicate, deft ride through their mesmeric body of work.

All is indeed dreamy, and if it gets faintly one-paced after a while, Donahue’s likeable goofiness, standing on one leg and clearly in a state of bliss, warms the cockles. Holly Macve cameos onstage to sing an old Dusty Springfield song written by Raymonde’s late father, Ivor.

It’s mature and dignified: as Donahue quips, “Those of you who’ve been watching us for 20 years won’t recognise this next one, as we no longer have a huge fight as it starts.” Peace broke out long ago within Mercury Rev, and tranquillity reigns.

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.