MERCURY REV live at Teatro Moderna,

Savignano sul Rubicone, Italy 13th September 2018

Mercury_RevThis is one of a limited series of concerts to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mercury Rev’s breakthrough album ‘Deserter’s Songs’.

At the time of release, this band from Buffalo, New York were at the point of imploding due to rapidly depleting sales. The songs were therefore composed with no real expectation that they would reach a wider audience and there was even some doubt that they’d even find a record label to put them out.

Mercury-Rev-Deserters-Songs-20th-Anniversary-TourWith hopes of success fading seemingly into nothingness, the core members and last men standing, Jonathan Donahue and guitarist ‘Grasshopper’ (Sean Mackowiak) were as surprised as anybody by the album’s impact.

They thought that their 1995 album ‘See You On The Other Side’ was the record that would bring them fame and fortune. When it bombed they were prepared to call it a day. If you listen to that record now you can hear a band floundering to find a voice. Above all. it lacks the heart and soul that makes its celebrated follow-up so special.

Via articulate and expansive interventions between songs, Donahue explains how the record came into being and how it saved the band from oblivion. A key moment, for example, came when he received a phone call from The Chemical Brothers,Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, a group he confesses he had not previously heard of. Tom and Ed asked if they’d like to play on a song (The Private Psychedelic Reel). This opportunity was a boost because it proved that, far from disappearing into a musical void, someone out there was actually listening to what they were doing.

Donahue recounts how he and Grasshopper composed in the dead of night, describing the eleven songs as “quiet, fragile” ballads. These were transformed into a series of ornately orchestrated mountain songs influenced both by Disney children’s music and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

‘Holes’, the album’s gleaming opening track ends by posing the rhetorical question: ‘How does that old song go?’. Certainly it is a long way from Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s haunting 1928 banjo ballad ‘I Wish I Were A Mole In The Ground’ not least because the moles from the 1980s are more technologically advanced with “telephones for eyes”. In one fell swoop a bridge was forged between old and new without any thoughts of imitating the Brit-Pop that was dominating the charts at the time of release.


Jonathan Donahue – the eyes have it.

On stage, Donahue exudes calm, charm and charisma. He smiles winningly and the soulfulness of his gaze has the intensity of a mindfulness tutor or a boho priest.


The set list comprises the whole of album although not in the same sequence as on disk and not with any slavish attempt to replicate the recorded versions. Instrumental breaks are extended and Opus 40 builds to a glorious crescendo helped by a thumping drum played by supporting act Herself (Gioele Valenti) . This powerful cathartic release has echoes of Popplagið by Sigur Rós’. Although billed as an intimate, acoustic performance, this is certainly not an unplugged show by the four gents on stage.

Songs from the album are supplemented two well-chosen covers – Pavement’s ‘Here’ and Sparklehorse’s ‘Sea Of Teeth’ and the set closes with the sublime ‘The Dark Is Rising’ which Donahue introduces by saying “this was not on Deserter’s Songs but it could have been”.

“And I know it ain’t gonna last, it’s not supposed to last” are lines from ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ but what this marvellous show proved beyond doubt is that these Deserter’s Songs are standing the test of time pretty well. They still sound dreamily romantic and the lack of specificity gives them a timeless glow that show no sign of fading.