Nicole Atkins is the girl from Neptune City. She is singing in a fabulous wig and now the power has just gone off. Half way through ‘A Little Crazy’, the opening track from her last album Goodnight Rhonda Lee and a song that she co-wrote with fellow American Chris Isaak, her guitar and vocal amplification cuts right out. But without missing a single beat, she just steps out from behind the microphone, goes to the lip of the stage, and belts out the rest of the song totally unplugged. It undoubtedly helps her having a voice bigger than New Jersey. It is a magnificent beast in truth, a huge soulful instrument that completely fills her songs with bristling energy and no end of divine passion. It really is a wonder to behold.
More used to being surrounded by her band, Nicole Atkins faces the prospect of performing solo on this tour by “changing all her majors to minors”. The trick works an absolute treat as she deftly negotiates her way around half a dozen songs and a range of styles that prove just how comfortable she is with country, soul and pop. She signs off with a stunning cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’, promising us that she will be back here again next April with a full band and if we can fill out the venue once more she will have an amateur wrestling bout as her warm-up act.
Tonight, though, Nicole Atkins is the support act, opening for those venerable New York indie-rockers Mercury Rev and helping them to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their meisterwerk, the album Deserter’s Songs. Later in the evening Jonathan Donahue – Mercury Rev’s frontman, who alongside lead guitarist Grasshopper is one of the band’s two remaining founding members – tells us that Deserter’s Songs is the album that almost never was.
Following the then critical and commercial failure of its predecessor, See You on the Other Side Donahue fell into what he describes as a crucible of artistic uncertainty and personal self-doubt. But a telephone call to him in the Catskills from Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons of The Chemical Brothers inviting Mercury Rev to contribute to the electronic duo’s then forthcoming album, Dig Your Own Hole served as a totally unexpected creative catalyst from which Deserter’s Songs was born.
In the two decades since its original release Deserter’s Songs has rightfully come to be regarded as Mercury Rev’s defining work. A record that conveys intimacy, nostalgia and emotional vulnerability in stunning CinemaScopic sound, it is still pretty much damn near flawless. But instead of marking this anniversary by merely recreating the album, Mercury Rev have chosen to present these songs as they were in their original, embryonic form before they entered the studio and found themselves immersed in their expansive orchestral arrangements.
Jonathan Donahue likens these stripped back versions to “antique rocking chairs”, barely able to stand up under their own weight such is their fragility. Their translucence, though, just seems to highlight the songs’ tender beauty, revealing yet further hidden depths within their remarkable construction. And the four musicians – Donahue and Grasshopper plus Midlake-man Jesse Chandler on keyboards and flute and Dutch multi-instrumentalist JB Meijers on guitar and trumpet – coming on stage to the sound of Welsh actor Richard Burton narrating The Little Prince adds to the delicacy and almost childlike wonder of the occasion.
Percolated by Grasshopper’s gentle harmonica wail, ‘Tonite It Shows’ exudes mournful radiance. A similarly spartan ‘Hudson Line’ captures Deserter’s Songs’ strong sense of yearning. The inclusion of their interpretation of Pavement’s ‘Here’ – from an album also dating from the ‘90s – increases the evening’s already acute sense of nostalgia, a desire to return to some forgotten, more favourable time. Donahue speaks of ‘Here’ being like an imaginary friend walking alongside him through life and listening to all of these songs here tonight you cannot escape that heightened feeling of reassuring familiarity.
By the time that Mercury Rev reach ‘Goddess on a Hiway’, Donahue has ditched his delightful between-song descriptions of Deserter’s Songs’ genesis, choosing instead to allow the music to speak for itself. Even in this distilled form ‘Holes’ remains transcendental. ‘Opus 40’, further propelled along its cosmic path by the drumming of Patrick Hannan from The Sundays, is transformed into an infinite torrent of cataclysmic pleasure. And the euphoric beauty of the closing ‘The Dark is Rising’ confirms Donahue’s assertion that it really should have been on Deserter’s Songs. It all makes for a joyful affirmation of what it feels like to be alive.
Photos: Simon Godley
More photos from this show are HERE