Mercury Rev’s opulent, widescreen Americana-chamber-pop is tailor-made for an orchestral treatment, which made last night’s collaboration with The Royal Northern Sinfonia at London’s Barbican Centre a tantalising prospect. Marking twenty years of the Bella Union label, this was a consummately choreographed spectacle that stretched the parameters of what a rock band could achieve and proffered full rein to high-pitched front-man Jonathan Donahue’s puppy-like enthusiasm and comic wit.
The mighty Sinfonia followed a largely pleasant if unmemorable set of shimmering shoe-gaze from Danish support band Lowly by teasing the audience with a waft of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’. Joined by ex-Cocteau Twin and label boss Simon Raymonde on guitar, the band joined the imperious ensemble – an immaculate troupe accommodating harp, piano, timpani and a cavalcade of strings – and launched into a gorgeous rendition of ‘Central Park East’, a song whose faultless poise and autumnal melancholy were perfectly suited to the Sinfonia’s meticulous symphonic layering.
The stick-thin lead singer was visibly thrilled to be amidst the orchestral hubbub, as he riffed on his urge to conduct, his lack of musical training, the childlike, wide-eyed nature of the group’s material and guitarist Grasshopper’s love of a quiet pint. The Sinfonia breathed new life into such classics from the psych-rockers’ songbook as the Disney-smeared ‘A Drop in Time’, the rousing ‘Opus 40’ and the grandiose Bond theme that never was, ‘The Dark Is Rising’.
Donahue briefly relinquished centre stage to Yorkshire-born singer-songwriter Holly Macve for an assured, Bacharach-inflected version of ‘I Wish I’d Never Loved You’, a tune written for Dusty Springfield back in the 1960’s by Raymonde’s father, Ivor. On show-stopping moments such as ‘Spiders And Flies’, ‘Holes’, ‘Endlessly’ and even a beguiling cover of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, his cracked, affecting falsetto dovetailed exquisitely with the entrancing ache of the instrumentation. Charged with a spine-tingling fragility and giving shape to the ecstatic mysteries of the heart, this was the wistful sound of a man clutching at a faded memory and letting it slip through his fingers.
A manically grinning Donahue was wrapped up in the blanket of sound generated by the finely-tuned musicians around and behind him, who achieved an assiduous balance between bombast and delicacy; the moment where he attacked the dizzying swell and crescendo of the combo’s accusatory, ‘A Day In The Life’-like strings with a light sabre was genuinely startling and transformative, like the unleashing of a caged spirit.
After the band departed, the strings of the Sinfonia bowed into a blissful arrangement of ‘A Drop in Time’ and the lights returned to the auditorium: it had been an evening of rapturous highs.