Review – Manchester Orchestra at the Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver May 16 2009
– review by Stephanie Faye/photos by Jon Affolter
To all those disillusioned with the current state of music or concerned with the impending demise of an ailing industry, I hope that you were among the select few present at the Biltmore Cabaret Saturday night. There, four lesser known American bands took the stage and pounded out sets with so much fervour and devotion, it was as though they’d single-handedly taken it upon themselves to resurrect the fading industry. And if this is a sign of what is to come, the future is not nearly as bleak as you might think.
The show started early, around 7 p.m., and a practically empty room greeted Winston Audio. The lack of paying customers didn’t seem to faze the Atlanta-based band, however. After greeting the crowd in an almost apologetic manner, as though sorry for interrupting the hushed conversation of the first comers, Winston Audio exploded into a set chock full of power, intensity and passion, seemingly oblivious to the cavernous dance floor staring back at them.
Alternating between singers and rounding out their sound with the addition of an acoustic guitar and keyboard in some songs, the quintet played with an energy that was in direct contrast to the response of the audience. Not to say that the few people present for this set were unimpressed; though they hung back to the sides of the room, the patrons observed the stage in fascination, and one could not help but notice the applause building with each song. By the end of its far-too-short set, Winston Audio had won everyone over.
Audrye Sessions opened with “Turn Me Off”, the first track off its latest self-titled release. Members from the other bands on the bill gathered in front of the stage, prompting a few in the crowd to tentatively fill the previously expansive distance between band and audience. The subdued lighting made it difficult to get a clear view of the entire stage at times, but also proved to heighten interest in the crowd as they continued to wander closer to see what exactly was going on up there.
During its set, the Oakland four-piece effortlessly switched between instruments, even incorporating sleigh bells, a xylophone, and a washboard into the act, as well as vocals from members of the other opening acts who drifted on and off the stage between songs. And when lead singer Ryan Karazija sang his soft solo portions during “Where You’ll Find Me”, not a peep could be heard from the audience. They ended their set with a stunning finale, complete with flashing lights and wailing vocals reminiscent of Muse’s Matt Bellamy on that band’s song “Cave”. Where Winston Audio had piqued our interest, Audrye Sessions had successfully baited the trap, leaving us eager for what was to follow.
The next band, fun., is just that: completely entertaining and bursting with exuberance. From the moment they peeled back the curtain to reveal themselves, the group – fronted by The Format‘s Nate Ruess – hooked us with catchy melodies and spine-tingling harmonies backed by a sound that was so big, it was almost unbelievable that it was being produced by such a small band.
They succeeded in getting those who were previously cement pillars in the crowd moving and shaking a little as Ruess, resembling a younger version of Ben Folds with hair (and an oversized toque) delivered an incredible, passion-driven performance. Band members also treated us to some kooky between-song patter, including an anecdote about their trouble-free border crossing experience, before ending with glorious rendition of “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be)”, for which all members of the opening bands joined them on stage.
With three excruciatingly solid bands opening so well and with such vigour, the guys in Manchester Orchestra had their work cut out for them. They proved to be up to the task.
But the time the curtain was pulled back to a chant of: “When I say peanut, you say zebra: peanut!”, the floor was relatively full. Though a little hesitant at first, the crowd gave a droopy response of “… zebra?”, and the night’s other Atlanta band burst into a set that could leave you nothing but completely overjoyed. Playing a healthy dose of new material interspersed with older tracks (including the crowd-pleaser “Wolves at Night” from I’m Like A Virgin Losing a Child), Andy Hull belted out the lyrics while the rest of Manchester Orchestra pounded away at their instruments and soaked the stage with showers of sweat.
One of the highlights of the headliner’s set, other than further attempts at the peanut/zebra chant (which were subsequently answered more enthusiastically by the crowd) occurred near the end, when the rest of MO left the stage, allowing Hull the chance to perform a solo version of Paul Simon‘s “Me and Julio”.
Slowing it down, Hull saturated what was previously a peppy, feel-good tune with anguish and despair, creating a rendition that almost overshadows the original. The band then returned and ended the set with ‘The River”, the final track off Manchester Orchestra’s latest, Mean Everything to Nothing, while Winston Audio drummer Shane dancing around onstage tossing Tostitos in the air like confetti. The evening’s only disappointment was the fact that Manchester didn’t play the amazing ballad “I Can Feel A Hot One”, but the rest of the set was so tight, it was hard to hold that against them.
Prior to this show, I was certain that it was almost time to give up on the idea that eventually bands would go back to creating great music for the love of it and rather than to grab a spot on the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. But I left feeling something I hadn’t felt after a rock show in a long time: utter contentment. No question – each and every band that played that night did so with absolutely every ounce of energy it had, despite the fact that most of them performed in front of a half empty room. If these bands are capable of performing at such a remarkable level now, it will be thrilling to see how they continue grow. In the words of fun: at least I’m not as sad as I used to be. Rock music is alive and well, you just have to look a little harder to find it.