Manchester Orchestra Captivate Philly with Emotional Performance

You can go a long time and not see a performance as mesmerizing and beautiful as the one we were witness to on Saturday night.

The Temple Performing Arts Center is a great venue, usually reserved for concert bands and recitals, but Manchester Orchestra is on a special tour, promising an “intimate acoustic performance” of songs from their recent album HOPE as well as other deep cuts from their discography. It turned out to be a picture perfect setting for what the band delivered – with all of singer Andy Hull’s focus on faith, playing in a renovated church replete with stained glass just seemed right.

Singer/songwriter Chris Staples opened the show with help from some of Manchester’s musicians. He reminded me of a slower, folkier Kevin Devine, and he set the tone for what was to follow. He played a quiet, reserved set with mellow drums and keyboard accompanying as the audience milled around getting to their seats.

After about a half hour set the stage was adjusted for the main act. Manchester Orchestra took the stage to raucous applause and they wordlessly launched into the album’s opening track “Top Notch”.

The group sounds just as beautiful live, if not more so, than their studio work. The harmonies are flawless and the instrumentation is spot on. For this show the band’s musicians all pulled slightly different duties; lead singer Andy Hull played acoustic guitar per usual, guitarist Robert McDowell provided harmonies and keyboard/piano/organ, bassist Andy Price also played a synth for assorted sounds like strings and low end instruments, drummer Tim Very also contributed on harmonies and filled out the sound with yet another synth keyboard and keyboardist Chris Freeman did his usual thing with harmonies and keyboards. The synth heavy lineup made the sound work so well live with each assuming different roles for each track, something that I would’ve never thought possible given the arrangements on the album. They also had a trumpet player come out for a couple of the songs including standouts “The Ocean” and “Every Stone”.

Andy Hull was a laugh riot throughout, tempering the emotional nature of the songs with his good-natured humor. He bantered with the audience, answering shouted-out questions and self-deprecating his older, more somber material. The way he balanced his almost exhaustively melancholy material by countering it with a joke was amazing. It kept the show feeling very intimate, as promised. The size of the crowd and venue worked very much in favor of that feeling.

His aforementioned earlier material was the highlight of the show. Admitting that he “had never played this stuff live before, like ever,” he launched into work that had never been officially released, including tracks “Girl with Broken Wings” and “Play It Again, Sam! You Don’t Have Any Feathers”, two deeply melancholy songs about suicide that had the audience transfixed. He let the silence after last for a time before breaking the spell with a perfect line: “Sorry. 18 year old Andy was bummed out, man.” The guy knows how to work an audience.

They ended with my personal favorite Manchester song, “Sleeper 1972”, a gorgeous ballad about a dream he once had where his father died and his family reacted to it. The line “I can feel you…everywhere” was an emotional climax for the ages, and with the setting we were in it had the weight and feel of a religious experience. Music as powerful as this can make you feel something intangible but altogether real, and if that isn’t a good description of a higher power at work, I’m not sure what is.

It was a concert unlike any other I’ve been to. The swell of emotion, the intimacy – it all made for one of the most remarkable live music experiences I’ve had and the perfect capper to a great year in music.

Image credit to Will Folsom.

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