The Dream Of The Crop.
Mercury Rev play the Main Stage at Livid at the RNA Showgrounds on Saturday.
Out of the smoke striped darkness emerge the silhouettes of a bunch of intriguing misfits. The house lights shine on the bunch like a rising moon as they pick up their instruments and... a delicate piano run, a crash and propelling beat. A two-chord sequence that seems to have floated down from the heavens. A spotlit Jonathan Donahue, all flared cuffs and elfish charm, smiles mischievously, waves an elegantly held cigarette, and sings like he's flying through the clouds. The song is The Funny Bird and another Mercury Rev show has been born, instantly transporting those in the room to a world far more miraculous and intriguing than their own.
I was fortunate enough to experience two such evenings of the recent All Is Dream tour; once in Melbourne at the very beginning of the tour, and once in LA's once stately El Ray theatre. Both shows began as above and floated forward through times dark and lonely and omnipotent and soaring and uplifting and even hilarious. In no time at all, Mercury Rev will conclude the tour where they began it; in Australia. And, whether outdoors at the Livid Festival or at one of our own once stately theatres, Donahue, guitarist Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak, drummer Jeff Mercel and their current touring posse will make another room or field of lucky folk giggle and gasp.
"Um, shake ‘em up a lot. Shake ‘em up a lot," Grasshopper affirms Mercury Rev's aversion to sticking to a single set list. "We tend to start and end, we like to start with The Funny Bird and we like to end with The Dark Is Rising and then in the middle is where the set changes a lot. But I guess there’s that comfort of beginning and ending in that way and then going from there in between there’s a lot of older songs we’ll put into the set and depending on how long you’ve got or we’re allowed to play.”
This coming Mercury Rev tour presents a great opportunity for fans. Earlier this year we got to see the All Is Dream songs in what Jonathan described as a ‘pupae’ stage. The album, the band's fifth, had just been released, the songs barely played live before, and the new live line-up barely established when Mercury Rev visited in March. The band has virtually been touring since, just completing an extensive European jaunt. A few weeks rest and they'll be bringing all those experiences to bear on this next round of Australian shows.
"What’s the opposite of pupae?" Grasshopper laughs at Jonathan's previous description of the songs. "We’ve played them now quite a bit and they still are growing and stuff; they still are different each night but they’ve settled in a little more. We’re not so scared of what’s going to happen, we’re ready for the weird curve ball that might be thrown in."
And is that necessarily a good thing?
"I think so. For us. For us it’s good that the songs have grown and have a somewhat stable foundation but then on top of that, that’s where you can have the craziness or whatever, because if that’s locked in, you can go from there and be confident and change it up a little bit and it’s not going to fall apart."
Falling apart is something Mercury Rev have come perilously close to doing in the past. Soon after the release of the band’s largely ignored third album See You On The Other Side, Donahue collapsed in an alcohol-drenched nervous breakdown. A succession of line-up changes left Donahue and Grasshopper as the only permanent touring members. Mercury Rev's current stability and industry is unprecedented. It will be quite a novel attitude with which to approach the next album.
"It’s just natural that now we just want to do it," Grasshopper reveals the contiguity of the next recording. "Over the spring as we were touring, I mean we enjoy playing, but we were just itching to get back into the studio and start recording. And now we’ve had a few weeks off and we’ll do these shows and it’ll be a nice ending to the All Is Dream tour and we can start recording."
But what of that positive mood? It seems that the best Mercury Rev stuff has been mined from tragedy and turmoil. Or at the very least an acute pang of melancholy. Do Jonathan and Grasshopper have to return to such dark corners to find more?
"I think ultimately in some way, yeah" sighs Grasshopper. "A lot of times we don’t even want to go there or purposely go there but it’s there. As in everybody’s life, there’s problems or things happen; very sad things or very emotional things and some of that has happened in the past half year already. And so I think we draw from some of those experiences. Also I think music is a celebration of life and things, but that’s part of life; the dark parts are there too and they’re always there."