It’s clear that longtime American psychedelic folksters Mercury Rev don’t follow the normal trends that would make them more popular or mainstream.
Case in point one: Their last album in 2019 was a song-for-song cover of an obscure album by Bobbie Gentry, of “Ode to Billie Joe” fame.
Case in point two: With no tour on the horizon, the band asked its management to book them shows in Israel because they’ve enjoyed themselves here the previous four times they played in the country.
Case in point three: Instead of the usual routine of filling up the Barby Club with a raucous rock show, they’ve put together a special acoustic performance for the high culture Piano Festival in Tel Aviv.
Case in point four: If that wasn’t already esoteric enough, they’ll also be doing another show the following night at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, in which they’ll be performing a live soundtrack to a cult 1960s horror film.
“I pursued doing concerts in Israel; we’re not playing shows before or after. This is something I specifically asked to do,” explained Mercury Rev co-founder and vocalist Jonathan Donahue about the seeds behind the upcoming shows.
“I feel very close to the spirit of the people in Israel, at least the ones I’ve met on my visits there. I’m always asking in my own sort of way to return there, and going to do shows is the way I can return without being a tourist.”
The 56-year-old Donahue was speaking last week from his home near Woodstock, New York, where together with his musical partner Grasshopper (Sean Mackowiak) and various part-time band members, he has spent the better part of four decades perfecting the band’s captivating melodies that are drenched in layers of mood-inducing psychedelic washes of sound and a rural musical sensibility reminiscent of their onetime Catskills neighbors, The Band.
Formed at the New York State University at Buffalo as a musical source to create soundtracks to the members’ student films, Mercury Rev hit a commercial peak with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs (featuring guest appearances by The Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson), which was named by UK magazine NME as the album of the year.
That music will loom large at The Piano Festival concerts – an early and late show on November 2 at the Tel Aviv Museum – which will feature a stripped-down, acoustic-based Mercury Rev, with Donahue and Grasshopper on guitars accompanied by grand piano and mellotron. Donahue also hinted they might add an Israeli trumpet player for the performances.
The show, dubbed Whisper and Strum, will feature “stories and songs behind the music we’ve recorded and music we’ve revered through almost 40 years together,” the band wrote in an announcement last month. “This will be our fifth adventure in Israel, and we are truly looking forward to performing many of these songs in the ‘late night/whispering way’ they were once born. Fragile, naked and wide-eyed. Just like us.”
According to Donahue, the setting creates an atmosphere that enables the band to open up and get to the songs’ essence.
“That’s before the Walt Disney Technicolor orchestration or, in some cases, the heavy distortion – it’s sort of a more gentle approach. We also have conversations with the songs themselves in front of the audience. For any artist, it’s a really cathartic and revealing moment that you don’t tend to get with electricity,” he said. “It’s really enjoyable for us.
“There’s a fragility in my voice, and without drums, it seems to reveal where we were at the time we wrote those songs, especially Deserter’s Songs. It’s not easy for me to look back that way; there are elements there of a deeply troubled soul. It’s not always pretty to pull out those old Polaroids and look them over.”
And now for something completely different
FOLLOWING THOSE two shows, the band will do something completely different the following evening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
“That sort of Night of the Living Dead brand of psycho horror is etched in our brains as scary, and what we do through the soundtrack is add the psychological dimensions to it."Jonathan Donahue
As the Mercury Rev Clear Light Ensemble, bolstered by a group of Israeli accompanists, they’ll perform a live score for a screening of the 1962 cult independent horror film Carnival of Souls. A Halloween late-night classic, the low-budget feature has influenced latter-day filmmakers like David Lynch and George Romero.
“That sort of Night of the Living Dead brand of psycho horror is etched in our brains as scary, and what we do through the soundtrack is add the psychological dimensions to it,” Donahue said.
“We won’t be playing the audio from the film, so we sort of have to translate the main themes of the film musically. We’ve done it once or twice before and it’s fun. And it’s a way for us to perform with a bunch of Israeli musicians as well. For us, it’s enabling us to get even deeper into the spirit and musicianship in Israel. And it’s self-rewarding too, to stretch out in this kind of way.”
Even though they expect to rehearse all together, Donahue said there is bound to be considerable improvisation.
“That’s the poor man’s theatrical part. If you see me onstage wildly gesticulating like Leonard Bernstein, it doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing, but I am a wonderful cheerleader. I wouldn’t call it cheerleading, but rather guiding the energy that I feel on-screen to the musicians,” he said.
That cheerleading talent also came in handy when Mercury Rev went into the studio in 2019 to record The Delta Sweete Revisited, a track-by-track homage to a long-forgotten, but much-revered 1968 album by American country singer Bobbie Gentry. Each track features a guest female vocalist, including Beth Orton, Phoebe Bridges, Nora Jones, little-known ’60s British singer Vashti Bunyan and – performing a special bonus track rendition of Gentry’s hit single “Ode to Billie Joe” – Lucinda Williams.
“Bobbie Gentry has such a strong place in American music. Anyone who grew up with ‘Ode to Billie Joe,’ is in awe of that mysterious song that’s possibly about murder, which kids heard on AM radio,” said Donahue, explaining his and Grasshopper’s affection for the iconic ’60s singer and her biggest hit.
“But leave it to Mercury Rev to cover one of the most obscure albums by one of the more obscure country artists in history, rather than taking on, say, Dark Side of the Moon or The White Album,” he added with a chuckle.
“But the songs on The Delta Sweete were really tough and vulnerable at the same time, and we wanted to give them a moody, midnight feel, something I felt close to. What happened though, is that the more I sang the songs, the more I realized that the songs weren’t accepting a male voice.
“So we made some calls to people we knew and they were all gracious and said ‘yes.’ They felt they could really lean into the songs, and it was a great experience. I could step back as a singer, which is liberating but there’s also a small bit of humbling that goes with it. The best part was just being in the room with the women.”
Rather than go for hit-makers, they asked singers who provided some gravitas to the proceedings, like singer/songwriter Bunyan, who after her 1970 debut album sold very little, quit the music business. Thirty years later, it had acquired a cult following resulting in an unlikely resurgent career.
“People around us were saying, ‘ah, you should get these young popular women to sing, to make you guys look hip. But we wanted people with experience in their voice, like Vashti Bunya. Listening to her sing, I felt immensely honored. And that was always the intention. It wasn’t to show, ‘oh, we know this is country music and we’re from the Catskills.’ It was to add our own midnight feel to something that’s been there for a long time.”
Which sounds a lot like how Mercury Rev’s been doing things for a long time, as well.