All smiles as Mercury Rev comes to Tel Aviv - review

Entitled Whisper and Strum, the band’s fifth appearance in Israel was different from any of its previous shows here, and for that matter, anywhere.

 MERCURY REV performing in Tel Aviv, Wednesday night. (photo credit: GIL RUBINSTEIN)
MERCURY REV performing in Tel Aviv, Wednesday night.
(photo credit: GIL RUBINSTEIN)

MERCURY REVTel Aviv Museum of ArtNovember 2

At the outset of last night’s Mercury Rev show at the Tel Aviv Museum, Wednesday night, guitarist and frontman Jonathan Donahue had a big smile etched on his face.

“I want to let you know just how happy I and Grasshopper (band co-founder and guitarist Sean Mackowiak) are to be back in Israel,” Donahue told the packed audience. And for the next hour and a quarter that smile accompanied the band’s acoustic performance, which opened The Piano Festival in Tel Aviv.

Different from any of its previous shows in Israel

Entitled Whisper and Strum, the band’s fifth appearance in Israel was different from any of its previous shows here, and for that matter, anywhere. “Since 1998, we really haven’t had the chance to play these songs the way they originally came to us,” Donahue said, recalling how the band first created its music in an upstate New York attic in the early 90s.

Opening the show with “The Funny Bird” from their 1998 breakthrough album Deserter’s Songs, the band played an enchanting and eclectic mix of their own work and covers, reflecting the stripped-down, really thin, quiet music of Mercury Rev past. If you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine sitting in that attic in the Catskills 30 years ago.

 MERCURY REV’S Grasshopper (left) and Jonathan Donahue.  (credit: MICHAEL BLOOM) MERCURY REV’S Grasshopper (left) and Jonathan Donahue. (credit: MICHAEL BLOOM)

In “Tonight it Shows” from the band’s 2000 album Bitter Sweet: Alternative Love Songs, Donahue’s angel-like voice was accompanied by Grasshopper on the harmonica and a jazzy trumpet solo – the first of three during the night. That was followed by “Peaceful Night” from the 1995 album See You on the Other Side – the song that the band was “born to do,” according to Donahue – which then segued to “Hudson Line” from Deserter’s Songs.

Donahue continued to trace the band’s journey from some very dark and low periods to global acclaim in between a couple of covers. The first is “Lover Yer Brain” of the Flaming Lips, a band in which Donahue played in the early 1990s, followed by “Pavement’s Here”. Then the band launched into their three biggest hits – all off of Deserter’s Songs: “Goddess on a Hiway”, “Holes” and “Opus 40”.

In contrast to the 90s’ Brit Pop’s short, snappy songs “in which bands like Oasis and Blur are pitted against each another,” Donahue said that Mercury Rev is about longer, five-to-seven-minute pieces with “sopranos, oboes, flutes, and a whole lot more.”

And as he said that, you could see his beautiful smile radiating onto the crowd, which was also all smiles after the memorable performance.