Photos from The Fillmore in Philadelphia by Dominique Kozuch
For one and a half hours last Thursday, Manchester Orchestra turned Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan into a canvas for its dynamic anthems, painting the room with sonic flourishes and staccato lights. The veteran band’s brand of artful rock takes on more layers with every album, but it’s all in the service of the solemn themes of birth, loss and renewal at the heart of its songs. And from the hushed tones of the opening selection, “Inaudible,” the crowd was all in, with fans singing along to every word, and meaning each one just as much as the performers.
Since 2017’s “A Black Mile to the Surface” and continuing with this spring’s “The Million Masks of God,” Andy Hull and company have injected a sense of progressive rock-like ambition into its music, and while that can bring some artists down a path of navel-gazing that saps the energy of the recorded material, and especially the concerts, Manchester Orchestra has deployed electronics and complex arrangements to deftly tackle the high concepts the band writes about. Last week, that meant performing the new album’s first four songs in a row as a mini suite, setting the mood early with the punchy, mid-tempo “Angel of Death,” the rhythmically rich “Keel Timing” and the eerie and syncopated “Bed Head,” with its tricky chorus that starts with the made-for-singalong “Oh my God.” “Let me relinquish and start to distinguish my past, and my time,” Hull sings next, and despite the mouthful of words, so does the crowd.
The band next treated the crowd to a trio of earlier-career songs, “I Can Barely Breathe,” “Top Notch” and “Virgin,” before a four-song segment from the concept album “Black Mile.” The “Black Mile” portion started like the album, with “The Maze,” with any stragglers now fully won over and yelling along as Hull contrasted the idea of being a maze to someone to being amazing. Same thing? Maybe. “The Gold,” the lush “The Alien” and the warming “The Sunshine” closed out the “Black Mile” run.
Three more “Million Masks” songs — “Dinosaur,” “The Internet” and “Telepath” — closed out the main set, bringing a sense of cohesion and reprise to the setlist.
The 2009 album “Mean Everything to Nothing” was spotlight in the encores, with the cathartic “Shake it Out” and “100 Dollars” before a return to “Black Mile” with “The Silence,” bringing the evening to the end with introspection rather than all-out rocking. Again, it was a significant placement in the setlist, as 11 of the 17 tunes were pulled from the conceptual “Black Mile” and “Million Masks.”
As usual, Manchester Orchestra brought along for this tour a pair of top-notch yet very different opening acts, both supporting new albums. Slothrust’s Leah Wellbaum led her trio through a curious mix of slack and shred, making self-aware requisite guitar god faces during her solos.
The band, who all studied jazz, have chops to burn but the focus is on its ’90s-revival alt-rock sensibilities that build on old ideas rather than mimic them. The band opened with the fun “Surf Goth” from 2016’s “Everyone Else” and included a trio of songs from the new album, “Parallel Timeline”: “Cranium,” “Once More for the Ocean” and “Waiting.”
Evoking a similar crowd reaction (closed-eye, shouted singalongs) to Manchester Orchestra, Foxing, like Slothrust, is a headliner in its own right, in large part because of frontman Conor Murphy’s cathartic, self-punishing performance. While Manchester Orchestra gets points for restraint, Foxing earns its bones by slicing open a vein and bleeding all over the stage (don’t worry, we’re speaking figuratively).
And like the other two bands on the bill, some of the best songs were the new ones, like dance-y “Go Down Together,” but it was the pure emo of “Nearer My God,” from 2018’s album of the same name, that the St. Louis band decided to close with, leaving fans nearly emotionally spent but primed for the headliner.