Video: Manchester Orchestra at the Paradise

Manchester Orchestra play "Wolves at Night"

This week, in addition to getting pummeled by rainstorms, Boston also found itself flooded with SXSW 2010 talent, as a slew of recent Austin vets converged upon the East Coast. Among them were Manchester Orchestra (of neither New Hampshire nor English stock), who headlined a sold-out show at the Paradise on Tuesday night. They brought with them three separate openers (three! What is this, Bonnaroo?), including hook-happy Tennessee band-to-watch-out-for the Features, who'd warmed up the crowd thoroughly by the time MO frontman Andy Hull and his four bandmates shuffled onstage.

The Atlanta-based alt-band got right down to business, as Hull (wearing a black knit cap he he flung off soon into the second song of the night, "My Friend Marcus") cut through the darkness with his distinctive voice: part yowl, part croon, part something I don't have a name for. Too dark to be emo, too emo to be prog, too prog to be indie, Manchester Orchestra seem to have carved out a niche all their own. One thing they're not, however, is "rock-star cool," Hull is quick to inform his fans. "If we were," he said, "we'd be doing coke and shit onstage." And blow just isn't his drug of choice. ("Obviously, I'm too fat to be doing coke.") Although if the Snowman had cometh to the 'Dise that night, perhaps the action onstage might have been a bit more ... action-packed.
The thing is, Manchester Orchestra put on a pretty decent live show. Their sound is consistent and true to their albums, and Hull's vocals (unlike those of so many emo-ish frontmen of his ilk) holds its own without the aid of studio enhancement. Most of the band members' showmanship, however, left just a tad to be desired. But not too many of the kids at the all-ages show seemed to mind. The crowd, predominantly sporting scruffy facial hair and flannel shirts -- I counted 16 flannels at floor level alone before losing interest in my anthropological study -- pressed toward the stage, soaking up every note. One particularly passionate young fan in a Where the Wild Things Are T-shirt (who henceforth will be called Max) at stage left clutched his heart as if in physical pain during "Wolves at Night" -- a song for which Hull briefly re-donned his ski hat, shoving it down over his sweaty mane of hair before realizing it was way too hot under those lights for winter apparel.
Chris Freeman, Manchester Orchestra's keyboardist and secondary percussionist, more than made up for his bandmates' somewhat lackluster energy. Seated barefoot on a tiny stool, he hammered away at his keys and head-banged (actually, torso-banged might be more accurate) so vigorously that he appeared to be having a seizure. I was glad when the drummer tossed him a tambourine during "Shake It Out" because it gave him an outlet for the manic energy that had the kid practically crawling out of his skin. At one point, the girl next to me whispered, "Do you think he's all right?" -- only half in jest. 
Most of the two-hour show was dedicated to cuts off their most recent album, Mean Everything to Nothing (Max just about creamed his skinny jeans during a crowd-stirring rendition of "I've Got Friends"), but they pulled a few favorites off 2006's I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child as well. Hull's vocals were best showcased during slower, gentler tracks like "Collie Strings," a rendition that prompted some dude in the dark recesses of the club to scream "Play it again!" (They didn't.)
Closing out the show, the band pulled three waify drum techs onstage to help out on percussion for "Where Have You Been." The techs, who looked like they were having the time of their lives, were joined by Freeman and drummer Len Clark for a seemingly impromptu jam session. Armed only with drumsticks, they built up a swelling wave of energy that had the crowd transfixed. This was the theatrics that the early part of the show had been begging for.

The band didn't work any encores onto the agenda; before their last song, Hull gave everyone a heads-up that "this is going to be our last song, OK?" and apparently, he meant it. By that point, though, he was drenched in sweat (sweat that, hand on heart, I'm pretty sure I saw a kid front-row center actually reach out and sop off the stage), and we'd all put in some hard hours. Even if some of us had been sampling the nose candy, we'd have been sated. For me, the show ended on a high note -- and I'm sure even Max would agree.
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