Live Review Manchester Orchestra, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London 7th October 2014

It’s in their live shows that the transformation into headbanging rock magnates is most abundantly clear.

Manchester Orchestra are no longer the shy, emotionally troubled indie emo outfit they used to be. The band’s new album ‘Cope’, a balls-out, no-holds-barred distortion opera that barely pauses for breath, is testimony to this, but it’s in their live shows that the transformation into headbanging rock magnates is most abundantly clear.

At Shepherd’s Bush tonight, on the last leg of their UK tour with Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band, they start with long-time opener favourite, ‘Pride’, which shakes the venue with its dirty, pained grunge riffs. Lead singer Andy Hull, who once seemed such a gentle soul singing about sad stuff happening to nice people, holds a determined and gritty composure, his vulnerable warbles are now furious screams. The band smash through ‘Shake It Out’, ‘Pensacola’ and ‘Pale Black Eye’, clearly taking pleasure in how brutal their live show can be, before playing their first songs from Cope, the comparatively tame ‘Every Stone’ and ‘The Ocean’.

It’s interesting given how ‘Cope’ was designed to be Manchester Orchestra’s real go at an uncompromising rock album that it’s the songs off second album ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’ that sound heaviest live, evoke the most energetic crowd reaction and display the band at their most comfortable. At times it’s like the audience are just voyeurs on a heavy jam session.

Just when it looks like the band have altogether forgotten just how good they can be when they tone it down and strip it back, Hull plays a solo version of ‘Colly Strings’ off first album ‘Like a Virgin Losing a Child’ and the venue falls silent. What’s better is his new-found angst now informs the quieter moments, giving them an added tension and menace. This is again clear with an unexpected play of ‘Sleeper 1972’, a haunting track about a dream Hull had where his father died. Juxtaposed with the relentless force of ‘Cope’ and ‘Top Notch’, these quieter moments show Manchester Orchestra are a band in full swagger.

An encore of painfully stirring ‘Where Have You Been’ and a stripped-back ‘The Only One’ further confirm their comfortable stride and suggest this band may well be playing arenas next time they return to the UK. But while they’re in slightly smaller venues, let’s savour one of the most endearing moments of the evening: when starting the encore with ‘Deer’, Hull sings “Dear everybody who has paid to see my band…” before having to stop for a good few minutes as the crowd sustain an applause and the house lights come on. For all Hull’s new-found steeliness, he can’t not afford a childish grin.

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Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett

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