Live Review: Manchester Orchestra at the Newcastle O2 Academy

Manchester Orchestra

Sometimes it’s great just to go into a gig blind, by which I mean without really knowing the act you’re about to see. You know, just to discover someone new.

Tonight I’m reviewing Manchester Orchestra. Heard of them, yes, but listened to them, no. I scour Wikipedia on my phone in the break between the two opening acts and the band I’m here to review (because what else do you do when on your own and surrounded by people who also share a taste in music, but stare at the four and a half inches of LED backlit display eight inches in front of your face). Wikipedia says Indie Rock. To me that spells Razorlight, Kooks, and the rest of the shite that comes with it, you know, mid noughties NME style music. But we’ll see. Don’t judge a [band] by it’s [probably highly inaccurate Wikipedia page].

Anyway, the opening acts.

I arrived to the very top of Newcastle’s O2 Academy halfway into a song (no real description of the venue necessary, it’s an O2 academy, the Wetherspoons of venues)…

Folky. Two guys, one ginger, one brown haired, harmonising, playing guitars. The dark haired one has an impressive beard, the ginger one less so, Big Beard’s wearing a T shirt with the Frosties Tiger on, the ginger one wears an open shirt and a striped vest. They’re called Bad Books. At times they’re beautiful; sweet vocals meet the tickling of guitar strings, a clue to music that’s yet to come? “Bonnie Prince Billy” and “Samey, perhaps?” I type into my phone (come makeshift notepad)… In Retrospect I still agree…They tell tragic tales of love; “He’s the exact opposite of me and rides a motorbike” sings the dark haired one, presumably about an ex girlfriend’s new love interest (I think, I’m terrible at picking up lyrics without them written down in front of me, my attention wanders…). But beyond the delicate guitars, crafty lyrics, and sweet harmonies, there’s a lack of movement in the vocals, more commonly referred to as a melody. At times they are beautiful, though…

Five to ten minutes later…

It’s the same ginger guy as in the first opening act, but this time minus the open shirt and he’s now got a band behind him. They look ready to rock (or pop punk rather). They suck. The curly haired Kurt Vile looking bassist seems to be the one redeeming feature, everything else seems so gimmicky. They’re called Kevin Divine and the Goddamn Band. I hate ‘Someone and the somethings’ style band names. They’re very ego-centric. It’s that sort of pop punk based on four beats,1–2–3–4, where the first set of four is loud and the second set is louder. Its boring and generic, and did the ginger guy really just do a Busted Jump? The drummer’s a proper macho type, hair like Dave Grohl, furious pounding, but he’s no Dave Grohl; his beats go nowhere. But hang on, the third song in their set is an improvement. Its much bouncier, to match his jumps perhaps, the guitar’s moving, the bass is grooving. Unfortunately this ends with the next of their songs, boring and repetitive, as Kevin and the lead guitarist start to play facing each into other.

…”Now all the tall people have piled to the front #manchesterorchestra #giveshortarsesachance” the guy in front of me tweets. He has a round happy face with glasses, doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd (lobe stretching earings and checked shirts all round), he’s about 5’10″, but enough of this nosiness.

Manchester Orchestra enter, welcomed warmly by the tightly packed-in mass of bodies they face. We’ve met the lead vocalist before, Mr Big Beard from Bad Books (but with his Frosties T shirt literally turned inside out), we’ve also met the bassist, Kurt Vile from the Goddamn Band. Ok Wikipedia, bring on the indie rock.

So it turns out Indie Rock means something verging on heavy metal, with a hint of folk. I probably should’ve guessed from the crowd’s attire.

…Setlist.fm tells me they started with “Pride”

It’s slow and sticky and thrives off Kurt Vile’s killer six-note bass riff (he’s a got a bass face to match). The drummer…who we later find out to be called Tim…pounds hard like John Bonham, there’s a keyboardist and a guitarist (both slightly muted), but the result of it all is a great atmospheric feel. The lead vocalist, Mr Big Beard (or Andy Hull, for short), alternates between the sweet folk style he demonstrated with Bad Books and terrifying screams; it contrasts beautifully. The next couple of songs blend into somewhat of a mesh, and fail to really capture me, but this attention is resurrected with “The Ocean”, which works the folk-y verse metal-y chorus dynamic well, with an almost Smashing Pumpkins feel to it. “I Can Barely Breathe” offers something bit different, a bit more intricate, as vocals switch intermittently between near-spoken word and near-shouting. “I’ve Got Friends” has great country influences, it’s more melodically focused than any song so far this evening, perhaps more accessible to my blind ears.

The start of “Simple Math” reminds me of a band called TV on the Radio, it then turns a bit Grizzly Bear, but ends up in the territory of a Biffy Clyro chorus (great if you like Biffy Clyro, I personally detest them). The band continue their tight renditions of their back catalogue, and the people around me seem to love it, throwing enough football header-like motions to both injure your neck and scare off Thierry Henry.

As Big Beard takes his time over the solo in “Colly Strings” a member of the audience tells him “to hurry and play the song”. The response was to “be patient, you dickhead”, before jokily adding “But still buy a T shirt”. The two songs to end the main set, “Cope” and “The Mansion” are slower and delicate for the most part, but with predictable sprinklings of heavier sections in each.

The quiet makes the storm seem more ferocious.

When Big Beard introduces the band members, he jokes that “[ the drummer] Tim has been incredible tonight, making up for his crappy performances the rest of the tour”. The crowd respond with a spontaneous chant of “Tim Tim Tim”. The band join in, no pretensions here, and for them this light-hearted moment confirms the fact that the gig “was the most fun [they’ve] had live in a while”

An encore brings the grunge-y “Top Notch”, which perhaps suffers from a rather flat chorus, and “Deer”, the least heavy number of the night and coincidentally my favourite; it’s almost Bon Iver in its beauty, and a great way to end an impressive show…

… In the library now with setlist.fm open in one tab and Wikipedia in an other (I should probably start that dissertation reading soon *but come on Ollie, it’s only week 1, don’t be a square*). OK, so I might not know the most about Manchester Orchestra, but I know this: it was a tight set by an impressive band, at times a joy for a neutral, and consistently a force on stage, undeniably impressive. And if the raucous and animated crowd was anything to go by, a real treat for diehard fans. Seriously, I’m surprised someone didn’t break their neck with all that head banging…

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