PHOTOS AND ARTICLE BY: Benji Taylor
Amid the dozens of Fishtown bars, the hundreds of microbrew craft beers, and the countless number of pent-up, concert-starved, pandemic-crazed Philadelphians, Atlanta-based indie rockers, Manchester Orchestra, sang about death, the starry firmament, and the weight of memory. Like most of the world, the unforeseen impact and nearly unbelievable duration of the pandemic derailed whatever plans the band had for 2020. In the lead-up to the initial outbreak, Manchester Orchestra and its primary songwriters, Robert McDowell (lead guitar), and Andy Hall (lead vocals), had been working on material to follow their well-received 2017 release, A Black Mile to the Sun. Their plan was for a spiritual successor: a further exploration into atmospheric tension and cryptic songwriting. After being delayed through most of the last year and a half, in April they delivered on that promise with The Million Masks of God.
Outside the Fillmore, admission lines stretched back the length of the incredibly large venue. Normally, this unique variant of congestion—the swarming, electric anticipation and seemingly inexhaustible supply of idiosyncratic buttons, jackets and band-tees—would be just another Friday for the popular venue. But now, after openings and closings, impromptu restrictions, and a nauseating amount of “unprecedented events,” the scene outside seemed oddly surreal and anything but ordinary. In fact, only a few visual indicators that anything at all had gone wrong over the past year had made their way onto the parking lot.
Near the standard hum of idle chatter and the pre-show plumes of cigarette smoke, sat two women in medical scrubs under a cheap pop-up booth. Positioned directly adjacent to the front door and resting their arms on a bare, plastic folding-table, each appeared removed and oddly dejected. In every way, the booth represented a visual incongruence, an argument in the mind of every passerby, and a lingering reminder of a pandemic in superposition. In front of the two women sat only a few items: one, an industrial sized jug of sanitizer gel, and the other, a hand-written sign on poster board. It read “COVID TEST $40.”
Eventually, most of the crowd made its way past security and headed inside. Around nine, the lights dimmed and the tour’s opener, Foxing, took the stage. After waves of applause, a minute or two of screams, and even one “I love you” from a very avid fan, the crowd eventually quieted down and the soft opening chords of “737” began to fill the room. The track is off their latest release, Draw Down the Moon, and serves as one half of the album’s intimate bookends. Over its four-minute length, “737” slowly builds from nothing but a few sparse and delicate notes to a climax of sound and distortion. The lead vocalist, Conor Murphy, hangs over the crowd, his trademark mercurial voice beginning to break. By the end of the song, most of the noise in the venue seemed to be equal parts Foxing and unrestrained crowd, with the front half of the pit screaming “I can’t do this alone” back to Murphy.
The rest of their short setlist transitioned between albums, with Foxing playing some of their bigger and more well received songs off 2018’s Nearer My God, and 2014’s Albatross. After all, any good band knows: you’ve got to play the hits. Eventually, the group ended their performance with the titular track from Nearer my God, and Conor Murphy told everyone one more time that he’d “sell his soul to be America’s pool boy.”
By this time, the Fillmore appeared to be making full use of its 450-seat capacity. The room was a sea of vibration; the crowd stirred, shifted, and repositioned itself to accommodate the mass exodus of people swimming for the bars, cash in hand.
Shortly after ten, Manchester Orchestra took the stage. The group spent no time addressing the crowd or making pleasantries. Within moments, the broad sweeps of a cosmic synth began to dance from speaker to speaker. The stage and venue were completely dark, save for a dim light which silhouetted front man Andy Hall. As he began to gracefully sing the opening lines from “Inaudible,” it became difficult to make any comparison to the Manchester Orchestra of days past. The song’s backing instrumentation is something born from Eno’s Apollo, and the creative direction brought on by album producers Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers) and Catherine Marks (PJ Harvey, The Killers) helped to reinforce the new, mature sound.
Shortly after Manchester Orchestra released The Million Masks of God, McDowell and Hall stated the record was a narrative journey from “birth to beyond, focusing on the highs and lows of life….” The lyrics follow an age-old story of a man who encounters an angel of death and is ultimately given the opportunity to revisit his life—to call upon his memories one more time. During the band’s creative process for the record, McDowell’s father unfortunately passed away due to a battle with cancer. The album’s themes and motifs are largely influenced by the loss.
The first four songs of the night ran parallel to The Million Masks of God. After “Inaudible,” the band seamlessly transitioned into the arcane “Angel of Death.” The performance slid between the group leaning into its rising melodies and Hall singing its lyrics as if they were phrases only half-delivered, taking long pauses between each line. Of the tracks from their latest release, this was the most direct and accessible—as most of the crowd could be seen bouncing and singing along. Next, the frenetic and disorienting “Keel Timing” and “Bed Head” featured driving, layered melodies, impressive vocal performances, and erratic shifts in tone. Both were a joy to see executed live and stand as impressive technical performances.
Following the Million Masks of God showcase—which formed the front end of the concert—Manchester Orchestra transitioned into playing some of their earlier work such as “I Can Barely Breathe.” The song is a fan favorite from their 2006 debut, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, and tonally is far removed from their output of today.
After this stark segue, it became easy to see the pieces of what was to come. In a field where thousands, if not millions of artists struggle to release a single album—and if they’re fortunate enough, maybe two or three—very few make it to six, even less to fifteen years. Throughout the night’s setlist, change was the only constant. From their occasionally soft and revealing, but otherwise crunchy and bombastic early work, to the overwhelming sonic catharsis of their last two efforts, Manchester Orchestra seemed to be a band in a state of flux—always willing to take risks, evolve, and mature along with their fanbase. After the two-song encore, as people were making their way outside, a consensus started to emerge among the crowd; nearly everyone was happy to be back out and attending concerts—and of course, Foxing and Manchester Orchestra put on a great show.