Photo Credit: Kirst McArthur

Manchester Orchestra – Academy 2, Manchester, UK (21st October 2017)

The city of Manchester means a lot to Manchester Orchestra. After all, as frontman Andy Hull points out towards the end of the evening’s proceedings, the band’s moniker derives from a young Hull’s love of the city’s bottomless pit of musical greatness. The big ‘SOLD OUT’ banner across this date on the tour’s promotional poster, and one look at the packed-out Academy 2 in Manchester’s Student Union is enough to tell you that the adoration is most definitely mutual. The Atlanta quartet have been dropping by this city for a decade now, and put simply, it’s always a memorable experience.

That word, ‘Experience’, is more apt now than it has ever been to this band, and in more ways than one. This year’s release of their fifth proper full-length, ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’, found Manchester Orchestra using all their experience to create an experience – the live show follows suit.

Those that have witnessed Manchester Orchestra’s rise from playing tiny Night & Day Café shows right up until this point will notice that there’s an added gleam from a band that was incredible to witness in a live setting to begin with. Starting with the opening trio of songs from ‘A Black Mile…’, the run from ‘The Maze’ through to ‘The Moth’ segues seamlessly and adds an extra dimension. Sandwiched in-between is ‘The Gold’, the first single from the new record; just one listen to the track was enough to be certain that hearing (and participating in) the chorus live was going to make the neck hairs stand on end. It didn’t disappoint.

The show isn’t completely without fault, mind. An otherwise blistering performance of ‘Shake It Out’ is briefly punctuated by a few seconds of unscheduled feedback as Hull’s lead comes loose from his Guitar. “Pardon me” he says as the crowd chuckles before re-commencing their silence right on cue – as ever, a Manchester Orchestra crowd knows that the delicate moments of silence are just as exhilarating as the noise and chaos. The songs simply command that sort of unshakable attention.

From there, ‘Pensacola’, ‘Pale Black Eye’ and ‘I’ve Got Friends’ finish off a quartet of ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’ and ‘Simple Math’ crowd pleasers that got their audience testing its vocal chords. We’re even treated to a seemingly off-the-cuff rendition of ‘100 Dollars’, a very welcome cameo that marks the end of the first half of the set, much like it does on the album that it belongs to.

From here on out, the approach is a little more measured, leaning towards the more cinematic numbers from the band’s catalogue. It starts, essentially, where it all started with a rendition of ‘I Can Barely Breathe’ from their debut. The difference is it soars even more now than it did a decade ago and possesses more bite at the end now that Tim Very and Andy Prince are manning the rhythm section.

We’re then brought back down to a hushed sound as a trio of inter-connected songs that form the centrepiece of ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ are delivered beautifully. ‘The Alien’ translates extremely well live, perhaps surprisingly as it’s so sonically and dynamically different to anything they’ve done before – the same can be said of ‘The Sunshine’. ‘The Grocery’ euphorically brings everything full circle with sections of the audience knowingly singing lines from ‘The Alien’ as it draws to close.

Other highlights in the latter reaches of the set include the delicate ‘Colly Strings’ which seemingly has everybody waiting to shout the “Don’t stop calling, you’re the reason I love losing sleep” line at the top of their lungs. Narrowly avoiding total disappointment on one front, we hear at least one song from 2014’s ‘Cope’ with a crunching version of the album’s title track providing some meat to the backend of the largely softer second half of the set.

In fact, it’s the very notable lack of songs from ‘Cope’, and the other harder-hitting number in the band’s repertoire, that really emphasises the shift of focus to create an experience this time around. Whilst Manchester Orchestra’s live outings have always been memorable in their own unique, joyful way with impassioned vocals from just about everyone in attendance, there is definitely a tangible shift towards putting on a truly cohesive show at this point. The setlist appears to be more purposefully crafted to ensure each and every song compliments the last one and adds to the overall experience; there are less shifts in dynamic and genre over the course of the set which is fully befitting of their latest masterpiece.

What it does mean, though, is that certain old favourites, and even recent favourites are surprisingly omitted for the benefit of the feel and flow of the set. So, when it comes to the encore, after returning to the rightfully-very-popular-as-it’s-beautiful ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’, much of the crowd is expecting (or hoping) for more after the ‘A Black Mile…’s closer, ‘The Silence’. Not because ‘The Silence’ isn’t enjoyable, but because this band has so many live favourites in its arsenal that it’s literally impossible to fit everything in to an hour and a half, and that is just another reminder of how far this band have come in the last decade.

Here’s to being gutted by Manchester Orchestra’s unavoidable setlist omissions for another 10 years, it’s a price we’re all willing to pay.