Manchester Orchestra at Arts at the Armory: Event Review

After releasing Hope, the quieter, beautifully-orchestrated version of Cope, Manchester Orchestra set out on a quick, thirteen-stop tour across the country. The tour was created to perform a “stripped-down” set at smaller, intimate venues that the band has shied away from for some time now. It was more-or-a-less a return to their roots and their more sincere, albeit depressing, side. Manchester Orchestra paid respect to their New England fan base on Monday night, when they made a stop at Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA with Chris Staples, a singer/songwriter out of Pensacola, FL.

Chris Staples played a short set with help from three members of Manchester Orchestra, Robert McDowell played guitar, Andy Prince helped out on bass, and Tim Very did some light drumming. Although you wouldn’t usually pair up Staples with a band as heavy and aggressive as Manchester Orchestra, but he fit in very well with an intimate and quieter show. One of the highlights of his opening set was when Staples, without warning or any talk of it afterward, covered Tom Petty’s “Refugee.”

Usually, music fans in the greater Boston area tend to be rowdy, excessive, and sometimes obnoxious, but all in the vein of fun and having a good time. You typically can’t get through a full set at one of the local venues without someone in the audience shouting old song-titles, someone jumping on (and off) stage, and someone throwing their hat, shoe, or underwear on stage. However, the moods were different that night, much different. Maybe it was the twenty-degree weather, the church/recreation room atmosphere of the venue, or the fact that the show was over by 9pm, but it was a very quiet and meditative evening. Sitting in rows of fold-out chairs, the venue itself is a little too much of a community center, and a less of a venue to hold prominent bands and musical acts in. Also, the lack of professional lighting and sound equipment coupled with the oddly tall building space is very obvious that the design of the building itself was initially made to store military gear and less designed to capture great sound. Andy Hull, lead singer and songwriter of Manchester Orchestra, even joked about how their room shared a wall with a youth violin class, which was probably as mind-numbing, screechy, and enjoyable as it sounds.

Manchester Orchestra came out on stage and played almost all of Hope with a few gems off their earlier work and first album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child. The full setlist was as follows: “Top Notch,” “Choose You,” “Girl Harbor,” “The Mansion,” “Ocean,” “Every Stone,” “Trees,” “Cope,” “Colly Strings,” “Wolves at Night,” “I Can Feel Your Pain,” “The Girl With Broken Wings,” “Play It Again, Sam! You Don’t Have Any Feathers,” and “Sleeper 1972.” For the encore, Andy Hull came back on stage with an electric guitar instead of his acoustic, as they closed with crowd-pleaser “I Can Feel a Hot One,” which they have rarely played live before now.

The special night was highlighted by the strong focus on the music. Hull and Manchester Orchestra barely spoke all throughout the night and barely took much of a break in between songs. The audience was uncannily quiet and was completed centered on letting Manchester Orchestra play their stripped-down set. The first half of the set was primarily off Hope, with the full band singing and playing along, and even Chris Staples came on to help out with a few. The later half of the evening saw the band dwindling down to primarily just Hull and Robert McDowell on guitar, keyboards, and backup vocals. It was a mesmerizing experience to see Hull in a hushed, but commanding role.

Although the night was quiet, Manchester Orchestra played a very heavy and emotional set. Songs like “Ocean,” “Trees,” and “Colly Strings,” were played beautifully and held such a presence on a small stage. When Manchester Orchestra played their older, heavier, and more depressing songs, “The Girl With Broken Wings,” “Play It Again, Sam! You Don’t Have Any Feathers,” and “I Can Feel a Hot One,” the crowd audibly gasped and leaned in to not miss any of Hull’s heart-wrenching words.

Although Manchester Orchestra’s set was only a little over an hour, they made a lasting and very special impression, playing old classics and rare tracks that wouldn’t vibe with their bigger shows. The audience and I left the show in a solemn but delighted mood, which was mimicked by the light snowfall on the winter night.