Manchester Orchestra: Million Masks Of God Tour [Concert Review]

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Manchester Orchestra w/ Foxing & The MichigandersKEMBA Live; Columbus, OH; Friday, February 11, 2022

Friday night’s sold-out Manchester Orchestra concert at KEMBA Live! was a solid rock show from start to finish, emphasizing the band’s 2021 release, The Million Masks of God, but playing enough choice selections from their older albums to satisfy die-hard fans as well. Personally, I came to the Atlanta quartet rather late, tuning in first to the band’s 2017 release, A Black Mile to the Surface, but their newest album had connected in a big way, becoming my favorite release of last year, so I was eager to see them live for the first time. And the impact of opening their show playing the first four tracks from their latest album right off the bat was an impressive display of confidence in that album’s material.

Starting off with “Inaudible,” which builds slowly around synthetic orchestrations to the widest, fullest, cinematic sound, vocalist Andy Hull growing from a whisper to a full chorus of howls, pretty much setting the tone for the entire set. The strings and keyboard sounds were played by auxiliary touring member, Brooks Tipton, but as the swells moved toward “Angel of Death,” you could feel the rising intensity as drummer Tim Very, and bassist Andy Prince kicked the music’s dynamics into high gear as Hull and Robert McDowell’s guitar sounds grew in volume and intensity. By the time the drums began to percolate with the faster, driving rhythm of “Keel Timing,” and the throbbing guitar hooks that matched that song’s groove the place was rocking, and the excitement only grew when they launched into the album’s first and biggest single to date, “Bed Head,” with the entire crowd shouting out those “oh my God” chants.

Then with a nod to fans who’ve been following the band since the beginning, they stepped back to their 2006 release, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, which has a similar sense of dynamics, if following the more traditional alternative mix of soft sections followed by loud rock choruses. “Cope” followed, from the 2014 album of the same name, built around a massive metal guitar hook that recalls Black Sabbath, but again that soft/hard, quiet/loud dynamic shaped the outcome. Hull, who barely spoke and wasn’t inclined toward traditional between song banter, did tell the crowd that “we’re having a lot of fun, hope you are too,” which garnered cheers. A third oldie but goodie, “Virgin,” from the 2011 release Simple Math, had the crowd in the palm of Hull’s hands, singing along on the choruses, “We built this house with our hands, and our time, and our blood.”

Having given the past its due, Manchester Orchestra turned its attention to the Black Mile… release, and played the first two tracks, “The Maze,” which built and developed methodically a lot like the previously played newer material, and then that album’s most successful single, “The Gold,” which got the whole place singing along, and then bassist Prince stepped forward at the end to offer some fun, fast playing on high strings. Before “The Alien,” also from that album, followed there was a chorus of pre-recorded “ooh’s,” no doubt samples from the keyboard player, and then the mechanical tapping of a drum machine before Very settled into the slow grove and meditative rhythm. While Manchester Orchestra’s music doesn’t have a lot of traditional leads played by McDowell, this track included a sweet melodic solo from Tipton on keys, followed by a lovely, melodic guitar solo.

One of the benefits of seeing a band after they’ve been out on the road for a while is that the setlist can begin to function as a longer musical narrative, one song flowing into the next, which was certainly the impact we experienced as Manchester Orchestra played the final 6 songs of their traditional set. The songs seemed designed to flow from one to another, like a longer drama. “I Know How to Speak,” was a gentle fingerpicked chorus, and it poured nicely into the gentle flow of “The Sunshine.” “Dinosaur,” back on the newer album, is one that builds from soft to loud and back again, while “The Internet” is soft and tender on the front end, but the band kicks in and takes it in a different direction before it returns to Hull’s more tender vocalizing at the end.

Then, getting personal with the crowd, Hull told the local audience that “since the inception of our band, a long, long time ago, Columbus has been a special sitting for us,” recalling that the band’s first sold out show ever, was in the nearby Basement, and he said he and Robert remember it differently, one where it was written with a sharpie, the other where it was printed in computer script, “Manchester Orchestra, Sold Out.” And then he took pleasure in the fact that the marquee outside that night said the very same thing. Then finger-picking an acoustic guitar for the first time that night, Hull led the supportive crowd, singing the chorus of “The River,” taking it from a whisper to his powerful full voice, and then closing the set with “Telepath,” with McDowell playing a keyboard as the only accompaniment.

The full band returned for an encore of “100 Dollars,” with that great line, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I just need a 100 dollars from you, and you, and you.” And then they closed the show with the reverential “The Silence,” a sweet benediction from a solid rock unit.

Foxing has opened for Manchester Orchestra on previous tours, and were best known to The Fire Note for their 2018 release, Nearer My God, for it’s cinematic, post-rock production values. On this night, though, vocalist Conor Murphy was impossible to understand, whether he was stinging in his high tenor or going full scream, as he did in the opener 737, and repeated often in the band’s 8 song set. The one track where listeners could make out the song’s lyric and melody was “If I Believed In Love,” where Murphy also contributed a trumpet part. But the absence of clarity in the vocals from the St. Louis-based band was apparently purposeful, as the vocals of Manchester Orchestra and the earlier band, The Michiganders, were both clear and melodic throughout. Foxing’s approach felt like it was all angles and elbows, the band appeared to be playing passionately at the same time, but never sounded like they were playing together. The Michiganders brand of midwestern alternative pop/rock was an easier sell, bright and accessible, thanks to the Kalamazoo bandleader and singer/songwriter Jason Singer, who’s songs tend toward post-adolescent unrequited love, but in a fun, melodic rock song package that was catchy, and easy to enjoy.

Brian Q. Newcomb

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