As the Mercury falls, Mercury Rev rises

Reasons to love Mercury Rev at the Bearsville Theater, Friday December 16

1) This was my first show at The Bearsville Theater, part of a standalone complex built by Bob Dylan’s former manager Albert Grossman, a mile down the road from Woodstock and, if you’ll excuse me stating the obvious, surrounded by woods and mountains. (The complex also houses radio station WDST (sponsors of this particular concert), the award-winning creek-side eaterie the Bear Café, and the now defunct but globally famous Bearsville Studios.) The venue is essentially a barn, with all the rustic charm you’d expect from such a description. There’s no security of any kind other than a woman taking your ticket and stamping your hand at front entrance. A self-service coat rack is supplied for your own use, there’s comfy chairs dotted around the back of the bar, and the bar itself is sunken right in front of windows through to the performance room, allowing those of old age and sensitive hearing to watch the show through plate glass while seated with their chosen drink. Though the quality of the sound piped through to the bar leaves something to be desired, the acoustics in the performance room itself are quite superb and there is simply no such thing as a bad view (especially when, on a night like this, the room is only half full): wherever you stand in the room, the stage is fully visible, and if you get tired on your feet, as my wife did, there’s even a small seated balcony. On which note,

2) We got a baby-sitter. That’s the first concert Posie’s attended since we moved. And for one of her fave groups, no less.

Idealists never apologize for stating the obvious

3) Where else but in Woodstock would I be a part of a scene straight out of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers? I park up on the main road (without fear of a ticket) and a VW camper van pull alongside me; the young driver sports a lengthy beard worthy of his grandfather, as do most of his companions. He pulls down the window and asks, “Excuse me, man, is this where Mercury Rev are playing tonight?” Yes, man, it is.

4) The concert was a benefit for the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Great music for a great cause. Makes the $25 ticket seem most generous. And almost makes up for the $8 glass of jug white wine.

5) J. Mascis was part of the opening act – and in a format less voluminous than the recently reformed Dinosaur Jr. His Corecraft project was full on experimental noise-rock minimalism, complete with old-fashioned (i.e. pre-hip hop) turntablism; unfortunately, in a reversal of usual Woodstock time-keeping, the show ran early. While our tickets stated “Show Time: 9:00PM,” we walked through to the main room at 9:20 pm to find Mascis and Corecraft winding up. Oh well.

J. Mascis on the right side of his Corecraft. Old-fashioned (i.e. pre-hip hop) turntablism out of shot on left

6) For Mercury Rev, this was a Holiday Homecoming. The band hails from Buffalo, up by the Canadian border, but has long owned a studio in the nearby city of Kingston, and consider itself part of the Catskills Community. (I’ve run into guitarist Grasshopper twice at local cafés already.) Though the audience numbers hardly did them justice, the group seemed not to care, reveling in the comfort of the small room and the presence of so many personal friends in the front rows. Vocalist Jonathan Donahue made a point about how fans tell the band on its travels that “we hear the mountains in your music” but that what makes the Catskills special to Mercury Rev is the people. It would have been a shameless attempt at audience ingratiation except for the fact that he clearly meant it.

7) The props. Mercury Rev announce themselves with a three-minute tape recording that accompanies a slide show of their favorite album (cover)s. Astral Weeks, A Love Supreme, I Will Dare, This Are 2 Tone – how could the show possibly go wrong with influences like these?

8) The music. Mercury Rev have a history so long and tangled it borders on the Flaming Lips’, and it’s equally difficult to categorize. At its best, it’s space rock with sensitivity, psychedelia rendered populist, prog rock with a punk edge, relentlessly grandiose but equally gentle. The talent within the 5-piece group, all of whom take turns at the piano, is indisputable, and though Donahue himself occasionally goes overboard onstage conducting the group like a symphony orchestra, his gold-tinted voice, like a younger Neil Young’s, more than makes up for it. I could list and rate the individual songs, or you could trust my wife, who wouldn’t have stopped playing 2005’s The Secret Migration (reviewed here) since we got it but for the fact that we moved and it’s been lost in the shuffle. (Someone needs an iPod for Christmas.)

9) The message. As referenced on my last Mercury Rev live review (opening for Doves at Webster Hall), the group plays to a perfectly sequenced visual display which, inbetween films of dolphins and doves and stars and sky, frequently offers idealistic epigrams like these.
“Never mistake motion for action” – Henry James
“We are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve,” Max Planck
“Set the world aside and become a world unto yourself” – Sufi saying
And includes its own words of wisdom, as follows:
“Ain’t it amazing when the seasons begin to change/ Someone behind the scenes just seems to pull some strings.” ‘My Love’
Hey listen (man), if you’re going to attend a concert in Woodstock and be bombarded by hippy idealism, it may as well for and by Mercury Rev.

And even psychedelic hippies have a sense of humor.

10) The farewell. For the encore, Mercury Rev played a song of symphonic proportions, complete with syncopated ending, to which the words were posted, “My God it’s full of stars,” credited to David Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey. We walked out of the barn and into the sub-zero night air, a full moon high in the cloudless sky illuminating the snow frozen fast across the breadth of the Catskill Mountains, and on the drive back, we slowed to a steady 40 miles an hour to fully appreciate nature’s beautiful bounty. Arriving home, we looked up again at the sky, and my God it was full of stars – and there, off to one side, was a pulsating pink planet. If you’re going to go see Mercury Rev in the woods on a night like this, you may as well come home to view Venus.

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