LIVE: Manchester Orchestra @ Upstate Concert Hall, 7/31/14

Review by B. Patrik

Manchester Orchestra is a Serious (with a capital “S”) band. From singer-guitarist Andy Hull’s pained delivery and earnest, literate lyrics, to the rest of the group’s dark-to-light instrumental shading, these guys rarely let up on record.

So it was a real pleasure to see the band let loose and just Rock (with a capital “R”) at Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park on Thursday night (July 31). In this setting, all the seriousness was, of course, still there ­– lyrics such as “I fought the spirit with a sword in my side” make it kind of hard to escape that. But the overwhelming joy that pervaded these five men as they bashed away at their instruments came to the fore throughout the band’s performance.

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Hull even jovially cracked a few jokes late in the set, after an electrical issue temporarily conked out his amplifier following a particularly thundering performance of “Cope,” the title track from this year’s excellent release. “This is it for us, the old Chest,” Hull announced, smirking at the packed house. “We call ourselves ‘The Chest.’”

The band’s roughly 80-minute set drew from all four of the band’s main studio releases, but the main set focused heavily on the 2009 sophomore effort Mean Everything to Nothing. That album’s “Shake it Out” got the night started on a raging note shortly before 10pm, with Hull’s full-throttle Telecaster attack setting the pace for the rest of the band.

“The Ocean,” a standout from Cope, was an early highlight (and also, quite unfortunately, the only other song played from the new album, along with its title track). Hull’s ragged vocal performance pushed at the outer limits of his range, while guitarist Robert McDowell and new bassist Andy Prince appeared to be having a hair-throwing war behind him.

While slow-burner “Pride” offered a bit of a reprieve, “100 Dollars” was the first time the band hit a quieter moment, with Hull delivering the plaintive chord changes solo. A fiery version of “I’ve Got Friends” followed, prompting mass sing-alongs and more emoting from Hull.

Throughout, the band was not afraid to change things up from the recorded versions. The aforementioned “Cope” slowed to a sludgy grind, emphasizing the song’s steamrolling chord changes, while “Everything to Nothing,” played after Hull’s amp was fixed, took on an epic quality only hinted at on the album. “The River’s” melancholy lyrics were punctuated by thundering choruses led by Tim Very’s powerful drumming and Chris Freeman’s understated keyboard melody.

The five-song encore felt like another set onto itself, beginning with a solo Hull on “Sleeper 1972″ and building up to the full-band attack of “Where Have You Been?” The night closed with a reimagined “The Only One,” subverting the original’s punky progressions into a gentle ballad, only to explode into the final chords.

The opening bands were a mixed bag. Brick + Mortar offered a screaming duo attack augmented by some well-placed loops on such standouts as “Bangs” and “Move to the Ocean.” Bassist-vocalist Brandon Arsaf had his frontman shtick down to a T, baiting the audience with smart-alecky comments after nearly every song and occasionally holding up a sign simply reading “Hey” (as if the crowd couldn’t figure out that lyric).

The Mowgli’s fared worse. While the performance was tight, the band’s sunshine-y, hippy-dippy demeanor seemed out of place on a bill with Manchester Orchestra. Through most of the set, the seven members swaying back and forth onstage came across as more comedic than anything. At least set closer “San Francisco” had a bit of bite to it.

MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA SET LIST
Shake It Out
I Can Barely Breathe
The Ocean
Pride
100 Dollars
I’ve Got Friends
Colly Strings
Cope
Everything to Nothing
The River
Turn Out the Lights
ENCORES
Sleeper 1972
Deer
Where Have You Been?
Simple Math
The Only One

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