A teaming crowd had packed the floor of the The Gothic Theatre by the time Manchester Orchestra took the stage. No one seemed more surprised by this than the band's frontman. "I did not expect this many," Andy Hull said.
The sheer size of the crowd didn't detract from a night of solid Southern indie rock with a Scottish outfit thrown in for good measure. The sizable audience remained rapt as each band offered strong sets marked by high doses of energy and moments of musical virtuosity.
Georgia-based O'Brother kicked off the four-hour show with a performance that comfortably switched between dense distortion and gently plucked guitar chords. The quintet started out the set taking full advantage of its three guitarists, offering tunes driven by plodding 4/4 beats and coordinated rounds of ear-splitting distortion.
But the band's pattern changed as the set progressed, with guitarists taking stints on the glockenspiel and adding percussion on spare tom and snare drums. In lieu of thunderous power chords, the guitarists spelled out simple melodies as the lead singer included vocals tinged with falsetto. The quick switch between a frantic and measured mood quickly became a constant theme for the evening.
Biffy Clyro's effortless transitions from manic and frenetic to moments of balladry were dizzying. During initial tunes like "Golden Rule" and "Match?" the Scottish trio blazed with the fiery energy of raving lunatics. Lead singer and guitarist Simon Neil captured the sound of at least 10 guitars in his heavy-hitting runs, an energy that came through in vocals as well.
But the tone shifted in tunes like "Many of Horrors." Neil switched from a chaotic strumming style to a finger-picked pattern on guitar, and his vocals somehow shifted from an insistent growl to a pained tenor singing of heartbreak.
While the Features' changes in tone and style weren't quite as dramatic, they were still damned impressive. Anchored by bright piano chords and jaunty, playful guitar lines, the band's 40-minute set included blues progressions, peppy ballads and driving indie rock anthems.
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Frontman Matt Pelham shifted between a grizzled growl and clear, earnest vocals, while the rest of the band took cues from early Stax soul music and 2/2 rhythms straight out of an old-fashioned camp meeting. Indeed, out of the three Southern bands on display, the Features most eloquently captured the musical traditions and idioms of their region.
While overall, Manchester Orchestra's performance lacked the trademark musical features of their Georgia roots, Andy Hull's vocals and guitar work captured the raw, emotive spirit of some of best Southern music.
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In a set that spanned more than an hour, Hull and company layered primal emotion over driving, frantic musical textures. In tunes like "Pride," "Black Men" and "Check It Out," Hull laid out dense, powerful guitar chords peppered with simple, straightforward solos. Chris Freeman provided additional textures with keyboard and sample work, while guitarist Robert McDowell acted as a steady anchor for Hull.
For all the power of the band's chemistry, some of the night's most remarkable moments came when Hull was left to carry the performance on his own. During the rendition of "One Hundred Dollars," his stark, earnest vocal performance reached its peak when the rest of the band went silent - his insistent "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm completely fine" was haunting in its desperate sincerity.
It was a varied performance, even more noteworthy for the fact that the room was full of avid fans. Instead of screaming along with the lyrics or creating distractions among themselves, the audience members seemed hooked on every line delivered by Hull and the crew. It allowed for a nuanced show, one that could be driving and subtle without losing steam.
Critic's Notebook Personal bias: "Check It Out" is one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra tunes, and the performance was a high point of the show for me. Random detail: All three members of Biffy Clyro played the band's entire, 40-minute set without shirts. By the way: Manchester Orchestra played a new track, "April Fools," that Hull promised would figure on a new album due out this summer.