Manchester Orchestra. The name itself is enough to send chills down any fan’s spine. Yet, the sheer volume of people that haven’t heard of them is just astounding. Hailing from Atlanta, six releases down and touring right off the back of 2017’s sentimental behemoth: ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’, you’d expect cavernous venues, media hype, the lot. Instead, I find myself standing in SWX, down on Nelson Street in Bristol, a club more synonymous with hen nights than head-banging alt-rock fans in black leather jackets. I’m not worried though. The band have always been mysterious on the road; never quite playing what the crowd want, but always delivering more, and that’s probably the biggest understatement of the year. Frontman Andy Hull won’t say a word to the crowd the entire night. Everything that needs to be said will come from the set list. And that’s more than ok.
‘A Black Mile’s’ first track ‘The Maze’ opens the floodgates from the very beginning. This is Hull’s tribute to his new-born daughter and it’s wonderful: ‘Give me some time, let me learn how to speak/ I’m a maze to you’. His voice is like nothing you’ve ever heard, blanketing the strongest emotions and most painful memories with a nurtured acceptance. Flicking from brutally honest love-lyric anaphora’s in ‘The Gold’: ‘I believed you were crazy/ You believed you loved me’, to the rattling screams of 2008’s ‘Shake it Out’ seems like second nature. The meticulously crafted set list marks the crowd as heavily as drummer Tim Very dents his cymbals. The band effortlessly journey through ‘The Alien’, ‘The Sunshine’ and ‘The Grocery’, a three-track segue that ebbs down the middle of ‘A Black Mile’. Hull is showing off by placing his earliest material next to the newest, giving the now ecstatic throng a taste of how far the band have come in their song-writing.
That’s not to say that the old stuff is bad by any means. To everyone’s surprise, the hauntingly nostalgic opening chords of ‘Colly Strings’ silence the room: “Take a leaf of paper and draw your mind/Your bourbon brown that can burn my eyes/I lost your presence underneath the bridge”. This is Hull’s first song for his then fiancée, off their debut album: ‘I’m like a Virgin Losing a Child’. In the climax, the words of his 21-year-old self blend flawlessly with a wall-to-wall expanse of sweeping guitar harmonies, coupled with a balls-out rhythm section that registers on the Richter scale. That expanse is, and always has been, the genius of Manchester Orchestra. The breadth of their sonic vista is heart-stopping, and during their heaviest tracks you can almost see the earth curve. We’re treated to aggressive renditions of both ‘Cope’ and ‘The River’ before the end of the show.
The encore feels like an expression of newfound maturity and perspective in fatherhood. Hull recalls a nightmare of a car-crash involving his wife and kids on ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’, a track that’s impossible to forget once heard, and it’s even more powerful live: “To pray for what I thought were angels/Ended up being ambulances/And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter/She was crying inside your stomach/And I felt love again.” Just as the night began, closing track ‘The Silence’ brings the set back around to finish.
I implore you to listen to Manchester Orchestra. If you can’t get behind the heavy stuff, check out acoustic album ‘Hope’, the yang to 2013’s ‘Cope’. Hull is so heartbreakingly honest in his lyrics that as a listener, it feels like you’re intruding. But please, intrude. You’ll be thankful you did.