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Live Review: Manchester Orchestra - Iowa City, IA - 11.09.12

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Live Review:  Manchester Orchestra - Iowa City, IA - 11.09.12
Manchester Orchestra
IMU Second Floor Ballroom, Iowa City, IA

Last year saw Manchester Orchestra’s third LP Simple Math released to the various inevitable accolades that come with each of their releases. It also saw the band expand their fanbase with deft placement of their songs in various television shows and video games, as well as a choice spot opening the Honda Civic tour. It also saw the band solidify their fanbase while lacking the rampant growth that had occurred with Mean Everything to Nothing. Undeterred, the band the band soldiered on, continuing to hone their craft and earn the rave reviews their live shows have always garnered. Our old friends at SCOPE reached out to the Atlantans and brought Manchester Orchestra out for one of only a few fall dates after a period of inactivity. Thankfully, the band hasn’t lost a single step during their time off.

Given the lack of a true tour surrounding this stop in Iowa City, a battle of the bands was held to determine who filled the opening slots. Hitting the stage first were relative newcomers Huge Lewis. The three piece fits in nicely with the 90s-alt rock revival that seems to be taking the world by storm recently, alternating peppy, finger-picked guitar lines with a monolithic distortion that would make Billy Corgan proud. That distortion would prove to overwhelm the bass at points, but never to levels that would derail the set. Instead, the band managed to weasel their way into the minds of the crowd with pounding drums, searing guitar, and a genuine appreciation for the opportunity provided to them. The band still seemed to be getting themselves established, but if they continue to improve on the promise they showed at this show, we’ll have yet another solid entry in the world of indie rock.

The next band on the bill were Iowa City stalwarts The Olympics. The guys have been around for quite some time, and it definitely shows - everything the band did was custom-designed to get a crowd moving. Their self-described “Dad Rock” didn’t have the blistering heat of Huge Lewis’s louder moments, but they were also much tighter. The five piece proved that poppy rock isn’t strictly the realm of pussies by weaving danceable riffs in and out of tight grooves, punctuated by ripping guitar solos in nearly every song. While the band put off an affable vibe, they seemed a bit too polished at times, with several songs featuring moments where the band’s “Rocking Out” seemed overly choreographed. Still, it can be pretty difficult to get a crowd moving, and the band’s personality alongside some truly catchy songs served to be quite the warm-up for the main event.

But, despite the largely successful efforts of the opening bands, the only thing on the minds of the audience was the return of Manchester Orchestra. The band’s dormancy was worrisome given their relatively fierce tour history, but the opening riff to “You, My Pride, and Me” dispelled any worries. The band immediately proved that not only had their time off not had any ill effects on their live performance, it may have actually made them more fierce than ever. Once the band got around to Mean Everything to Nothing, the songs proceeded to get meatier than they had been in the past, and that production style carried over to Simple Math. Live, the band managed to dial up the intensity even more, punctuating the heavier moments with distortion that’s thicker than ever, as well as the addition of auxiliary percussion to kick the crowd in the chest at all the right moments.

The band stuck largely to the lion’s share of Mean Everything to Nothing, with bits and pieces of Simple Math thrown in for variety. Sadly, Like a Virgin Losing a Child was a bit under-represented with only “I Can Barely Breathe” and “Where Have You Been” driving the old-school fans into a frenzy. Even though the band’s focus was largely on the newer material, the group made sure that the new songs now hold the same place in the hearts of the crowd as the old. I had some issues with the lack of dynamic shifts in Simple Math on record, but the band managed to craft peaks and valleys where none previously existed. “Simple Math” in particular managed to finally win me over, with Andy Hull turning what was a passable ballad on record into the soaring existential crisis that was always waiting underneath the surface.

While the entire band was in high spirits and seemingly ecstatic to have driven halfway across the country for a single show in the middle of nowhere, lead man Andy Hull and keyboardist / auxiliary percussionist Chris Freeman seemed to be having a complete blast. Hull’s words can occasionally make him seem like disturbed hermit, but on stage, he’s lost none of his paint-scraping yowl nor his imposing stage presence. He spent a good portion of the set prowling the stage like a panther, coiled up and ready to pounce whenever songs like “The River” and “The Only One” required. On the other hand, Freeman spent his time acting as the bluster around Hull’s eye of the storm. Were he not energetically assaulting the drums as hard as he was, that extra oomph that propelled “Pale Black Eye” and “Shake It Out” would all be gone. By the time the band closed up shop with “100 Dollars”, I had gained a renewed faith in Manchester Orchestra. I’d only been able to catch the band in passing at festivals before, but never again will I miss their show, lest I miss one of the most emotionally intense and dynamic bands in the world today.

Thanks to Zak Neumann for all of the pictures and constant bitching about bands' love of the color red on stage, and thanks to Mackenzie Sheehy of SCOPE for setting everything up for us. Check out more about SCOPE at http://scope.uiowa.edu, and look at more of Zak's pictures at http://zakneumann.sqsp.com.
Submitted by Jeremy

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