The Liquid Room is practically invisible. It’s sandwiched on the 11th floor of an alpine glass and steel complex amidst the neon wilderness of Tokyo’s “pink district”, between two-stories of blaring karaoke halls and raucous bowling lanes, above gathering throngs of silver-lipsticked transvestites and shouting pamphleteers in lurid lamé parkas. This congested quarter of nicotine-stained hostess bars, basement XXX squalor, and countless vaguely pornographic estates is Tokyo’s version of a red-light district. Though tonight, in a murky blackbox theatre, high over the traffic and thrum, cosmic Americana will be the main attraction.
Here in support of their fifth LP, All Is Dream (V2) Buffalo, NY’s Mercury Rev have filled tonight’s venue to capacity. Though a commendable feat, it is also a tremendous hazard. With hundreds of punters crowded into a single theater devoid of any visible fire-escapes, it seems that if some calamity did transpire the hordes would have to scurry down a lone, narrow stairway located on the farthest corner of the venue. Yet as soon as the Rev sextet slither onstage and assume their places, the maddening roar of applause betrays such pragmatic concerns.
Flanked by keyboardists Michael Schirmer (goatee, ill-advised beret) and Anthony Molina (clean-shaven, a mushroom cloud of curls), the Rev (singer/guitarist Jonathan Donahue, guitarist Grasshopper and drummer Jeff Mercel), with bassist Paul Dillon in tow, launch into The Funny Bird. Originally tucked away near the end of their previous LP, the breakthrough Deserter’s Songs (V2), tonight it is a soaring introduction. While on that 1998 release, the song was very much the black sheep amidst the blissful herd, tonight it is among its own.
Under a radiant kaleidoscope of reds and yellows Donahue—an emaciated, elfish hybrid of Ben Stiller and Paul “Pee Wee” Rueben—pilots the sonic juggernaut from behind his gleaming Stratocaster with thespian fierceness. His trademark alto, FX-drenched and flanging furiously, drifts atop a churning wash of distortion and somber synthesized strings punctuated by Mercel’s stamping, Bonhamesque pulse. Donahue coos, “Like a wave along a coast / I’ve come to love the highs and lows / when in the end you’re just a band”. The song erupts into a white-hot maelstrom, disintegrates and, slowly, resumes its groove. Donahue continues, “Farewell golden sound / No one wants to hear you now”, before concluding, “but you’re the only one I know”, as the song surges and bit-by-bit shimmers into silence. Next up is the equally thumping “Chains” off the latest album. Over a beat suspiciously akin to that of the opener, the Rev unspool strains and stretches of brassy melody as Donahue delivers vague, yearning couplets, ” I remember their faces / I remember their stares / I remember how wasted / you were in there”. With the exception of a pompous, staccato piano interlude—far more theatrical live than on record—the song graciously glides along.
Donahue’s penchant for pantomime rears its head on “Tides of the Moon” also off the latest disc. Hushed and negligible on record, live it becomes a thinly disguised thud. Empty-handed but for a lingering cigarette Donahue illustrates each line with a mimetic gesticulation. So as to divert attention from the gross inconsequence of the tune, he flaps his arms dramatically during the chorus, “And you fly in the face of the sun / and you float on the tides of the moon”. Thankfully, the group follow-up this blunder with a trio of gems from their previous masterpiece. “Tonite It Shows”, a tender homage to Donahue’s friendship with Grasshopper—who along with the singer are the only two remaining original members of the band—is transformed from a Disneyesque twinkle into a delicate, mellotron-hewn swirl. The Rev continue on their revisionism by altering “Delta-Sun Bottleneck Stomp” from a halcyon rush only a stone’s throw from techno (and in the case of the Chemical Brothers remix, a full-blown dancefloor anthem) into a pounding, honky-tonk bop. Lastly, one of the band’s finest songs: the tender, crepuscular “Holes” is performed with the serene precision of a seasick hymn.
Including two lapses into quasi-cabaret crooning—the pathetically ghoulish “Lincoln’s Eye”, after which Donahue quips, “That sure is a scary song” and, the evening’s nadir, the insipid, jejune “Spiders and Flies”—the remainder of the set is erratic. The rousing “Nite and Fog” and mellifluent “Little Rhymes” are followed by ham-fisted stabs at the already humdrum “You’re My Queen” and the plaintive “Goddess on a Hiway”.
The set closes with the celestial “Opus 40” whose glistening cadence is affixed with a prolonged, soporific coda that finds Donahue on his knees cajoling shrill ululations from his guitar. Eventually, he strips off his instrument and begins to mimic painting with his right hand accompanied by affected crashes from pianist Schirmer. The dreary jam reaches an embarrassing low with Donahue ad-libbing smugly the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”. He intones, “And you may find yourself / at the wheel of a large record deal”. The spectacle concludes with Donahue droning, ” And you may find yourself / at the end of a gun / holding the trigger”. Brazen as usual, Donahue proceeds to use his left-hand in a gun-shape to simulate suicide. Accompanied by the mawkish clatter of cymbals, he throws his head back repeatedly in mock injury. The lengthy cadence eventually crumbles to a carpet of feedback.
The band reemerges for an encore with an exhumed “Chasing A Bee” from their 1992 Columbia debut album, Yerself is Steam. The only other song of the night not culled from their two most recent, post-adulation releases—“Frittering”, also off their debut, received a lackluster airing earlier in the set—it sites a fuzzier, crackling Rev of yore. But tonight, its coarseness is sandblasted, every edge sheared, in favor of a staid plod. It seems the embers of the original, caustic Rev sextet—an electric pandemonium helmed and destroyed by the irascible, bleary-eyed David Baker - have finally been snuffed out completely. Further evidence of the divergent path chosen by Donahue and Grasshopper is what follows: a grim instrumental wherein Donahue, sat on a chair, bows rusty wails from a wobbling saw before, ultimately, heckling Schirmer for parochial fowl-ups.
Thankfully the band redeems itself with consecutive brilliance. The kinetic “Hercules” goes from sizzling to scorching, swells and blasts, with little interference from Donahue’s ego. Current single “Dark is Rising” closes the evening with its tsunami of cinemascopic, crystalline strings fissured by chiming, melancholic lulls where Donahue’s damaged voice billows atop pale, rippling piano chords. As the previous song concluded with the couplets, “All is one / all is mind / all is lost / and you find / all is dream”, this one begins mid-reverie. Donahue sings, “I dreamed of you on my farm / I dreamed of you in my arms / But dreams are always wrong”. The music balloons and subsumes, undulates and undoes, until Donahue is left sighing, “I always dreamed I’d love you / I never dreamed I’d lose you / in my dreams I’m always strong”. His final word obscured by a spellbinding, thunderous hum, Donahue is left standing arms aloft, motionless and mute at last.