It’s been 3 years since Manchester Orchestra have hopped across the pond, and the excitement is palpable in the sold out crowd packed into the Fleece for tonight, the first show of their tour promoting new album ‘Cope’. The Fleece is a curious venue, with its metal struts jutting up from ground to ceiling at every few metres, and to begin with you wonder how the band’s widescreen sound can be contained by the modest sized room.
Self described “emotional-ass concept rock” band Gang of Youths are a good fit as openers, with a style not a million miles from the headliners, albeit a slightly mellower feel. Songs that are carried by buoyant bass lines leave ample room for soulful group vocals and occasional keyboard flourishes. On tonight’s performance, you expect the Australians will be back on a headline tour sooner than later.
Walking purposefully onstage as the lights go down, Manchester Orchestra dispel jitters with a performance of ‘Shake It Out’ that reverberates through the room, the dual guitar assault of Andy Hull and Robert McDowell topped only by Hull’s howling vocals. From this point on the Georgia five-piece have the sold-out throng under their spell, aided by a stellar mix from the sound engineers. Fans join in raucously when needed, as on the boozy refrain of crowd-favourite ‘Pensacola’, but allow for emotional tension to build during a swelling performance of early track ‘Colly Strings’. Hull loosens up a few songs in and engages in some playful chit chat with the audience, namely a debate on whether “Everybody’s the same size when they’re lying down.” (The band don’t think so.)
A smattering of new tracks are played, including a ground-shaking rendition of the title track ‘Cope’, the bands doom-riffing threatening to blow out the sound system. The main set is brought to a close with classic ‘The River’, the impassioned vocal delivery again tugging at the heartstrings as the Orchestra reach a final crescendo.
What happens next is unexpected but probably the highlight of the set. To strains of organ from keyboardist Chris Freeman, Hull pulls out a mixed cover of Willie Nelson’s ‘The Party’s Over’ and The Mountain Goats ‘No Children’. The final accapella chorus, enriched by a three-part harmony, earns first revered silence and then rapturous applause.
Explaining the lack of a ‘proper’ encore – “It’d just be us walking off and standing in that corner and coming back on again” – the band settle for the lighting engineer darkening the stage momentarily. Recent singles ‘Top Notch’ and ‘Every Stone’ hurtle past before a few song requests are heard. ‘Virgin’ is rejected out of hand as “nowhere in Bristol has a baritone guitar”, but the band agree to play ‘Simple Math’, sort of. “Luckily it’s on the setlist anyway” Hull murmurs. An impromptu excerpt of ‘The Only One’ is the final twist of the evening, and Manchester Orchestra finish as they started, with a beautiful cacophony of guitars and cymbals.
It’s been long overdue, but it’s a welcome return that whets the appetite for their autumn tour and perhaps the chance to hear a few more songs from the fantastic ‘Cope’.