Thursday, September 1, 2011

"If you left it up to me, every day would be a holiday from real..."

Jack's Mannequin and Guster
Live at the Frederik Meijer Gardens
Grand Rapids, MI, 8/31/11

Andrew McMahon, the mind and voice behind the project Jack's Mannequin, has been one of my favorite songwriters ever since my brother bought a used copy of Something Corporate's North off Amazon at the end of 2005. I instantly loved that band's emotional brand of piano pop, with it's big hooks and McMahon's soaring vocals, and I quickly picked up their other full length, the even better Leaving Through the Window It wasn't until the following summer, however, when I finally checked out Everything in Transit, the first record from McMahon's side project, Jack's Mannequin. The record was born out of a few songs that McMahon had written that he felt didn't fit with the style of SoCo, so he wrote and recorded a complete, semi-autobiographical album apart from his band. That record, to this day, remains my definitive summer album and one of my top five favorites of all time, but until last night, I'd never seen McMahon live, either as a part of Jack's Mannequin or Something Corporate.

Needless to say, finally getting to see one of my favorite bands in concert was a dream come true, and the setting was nearly perfect: the last night of August at an outdoor amphitheater, on a warm night, the perfect way to close out what has been a tremendous summer. McMahon and co. were proceeded by openers Lady Danville, a talented group of musicians with vocal harmonies reminiscent of Band of Horses and a set of killer songs to boot: I hadn't heard of the band before this week, but after their excellent opening set, I will certainly be checking out their EP and watching for them in the future. 

By the time Jack's Mannequin took the stage, I was in high anticipation, and they certainly didn't disappoint. The sound quality in the amphitheater was excellent, and I knew it was going to be a great evening as soon as the synth opening of "My Racing Thoughts", the first single off of McMahon's new album People and Things (due out October 4th) echoed through the summer evening. Next was "Holiday From Real", the anthemic opening track from Everything in Transit, which started off with just McMahon on piano but quickly built into a showstopper. The slow piano lines and soft harmonies of "Annie Use Your Telescope" brought a lovely autumn vibe to the proceedings before McMahon rocketed into a pair of hook-filled, upbeat numbers ("Crashing" and "The Mixed Tape").

Next up was "Amy I", the second and last track McMahon would play from his upcoming record. The song was lovely, sounding even better in it's live setting than it's studio one, and it made me wish he'd delve a little further into his new material, since People and Things is probably my most anticipated release for the remainder of the year, but it's hard to complain with a set of songs as solid as the one the band played. "Last Straw," a b-side from the Everything in Transit sessions, was a concert highlight, and made me wonder once again why the song didn't make that first album, whereas "Swim," a track from 2008's The Glass Passenger, was one of the night's most emotional moments. "Bloodshot" was another highlight, featuring McMahon climbing on top of his piano during the song's intro, only to jump off as it exploded into it's first verse. The song, which has never been a favorite of mine on record, reached exciting new heights in it's live format, justifying it's spot on the setlist in favor of superior songs. 


By this point in the night, I was getting a bit restless. McMahon was giving his all onstage, but the setlist wasn't wowing me so far, and the crowd was quite possibly the worst and least responsive group of people I've ever been a part of at a concert, remaining seated in their lawn chairs despite McMahon's best efforts, and getting up to go get more beer every two or three songs. Thankfully, the end of McMahon's set was the highlight of the night: five straight songs from Everything in Transit, and finally, this concert felt like what I had hoped it would be. Hearing these songs that had defined my summers for years at the tail end of a particularly great one felt like a perfect bookend. The two-part track "Made For Each Other" went on for over ten minutes, but not a single one of those was wasted. The song, which functions as the penultimate track on Everything in Transit, used to be my least favorite song on the record, but has grown on me immensely over the years, from the supremely catchy first half to the more subdued "You Can Breathe" section that leads the song out. The segue into the second half also supplied McMahon's best piano playing of the night: the man has a terrific songwriting talent and has a great voice (proven even more so in a live setting), but his piano playing has always been the thing about his musicianship that has set him apart from so many other "pop-punk" or pop-rock bands, and that held true last night, especially on this song.

McMahon forgot the intro and the first words to "Bruised," but recovered in time to deliver the enormous chorus, still one his best, which rang through the theater like almost nothing else did all night. Afterward, he wondered aloud how he could forget the words to a song that he's played "almost every night of his life for the past six years." It didn't matter though, as the gorgeous "Rescued" came next. That song, perhaps the most subdued ballad in his discography, is also one of his very best, and it resonated particularly well with me last night. It's always been a song I associated with the end of summers: something about that line "hiding at the bottom of your swimming pool, some September", and hearing it as the light dimmed on my one last hurrah of the season chilled me to the bone. The stadium-ready "Dark Blue" began to tie up the set, and it brought me to my feet, even if most of the audience did not extend the same courtesy to the band. That song's bridge has always been one of my favorite moments of Everything in Transit, and it was certainly one of the most moving moments of the set. I expected "Dark Blue" would close out the set for Jack's Mannequin, but they remained for one more number: a rousing take on "La La Lie," where members of Lady Danville and Guster joined Andrew and his band onstage to close out the set.


Guster, the other co-headliner, is a band that I've known for years, ever since they had a pair of hit singles on the radio back in 2003, and I'd even seen them live before (at Interlochen during my summer there), but I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of theirs the way I am for Jack's Mannequin. Still, I was excited to see them again, and their live show was just as great as I remember it being. They took the stage with "Barrel of a Gun," a catchy track from their 1999 release (and still their best), Lost and Gone Forever. "Architects and Engineers" was the first of six cuts the band played from their latest album, Easy Wonderful, a record that I haven't given much time to yet, but one I plan to listen to a lot more after seeing this concert, as the tracks they played from it were the kind of breezy summer pop this band has been churning out for almost twenty years now. "Demons," one of the band's most well known songs, was a highlight for me, bringing back memories of when I sang it with one of my buddies at a high school back at the end of junior year. Singer Ryan Miller sounded better than I've ever heard him sound on that song, suggesting that he may have gained some vocal range since I last saw the band. "Center of Attention," another track from Lost and Gone Forever and another favorite of mine, was also a welcome addition to the set.

A breezy acoustic guitar and an eerie synth line heralded the arrival of "Satellite," a single from 2006's Ganging Up On the Sun, another great record I haven't given enough time to. The song sounded massive as it cut through the night air, and became one of my favorite moments of the concert. Another cut from Sun, the soaring closer "Hang On" marked the beginning of the best segment of the set, providing a terrific showcase for Miller's vocal prowess before launching into "Come Downstairs and Say Hello," a slow build of a song that sits among my personal favorites from the band, and the song's massive climactic moment was one of my favorite parts of any show I've seen this year. "Do You Love Me," the lead single from Easy Wonderful, has arguably one of the biggest hooks the band has ever written, and was probably the best part of their entire set: my girlfriend and I got on our feet and danced and sang along, and it felt like a perfect summer concert moment.

"Amsterdam," the band's biggest hit from the Keep it Together record from 2003, was a big crowd-pleaser: the chorus remains one of the band's best, and it's no big wonder that the song was a hit, it just makes me wonder why they haven't been able to score any big singles since that record (or why they weren't ever able to break into the mainstream before that, for that matter). "Happier," the last track from Lost that would appear in the setlist, closed the main set, and was undoubtedly a highlight, providing a showcase for the harmonies between Ryan Miller and guitarist Adam Gardner, something that was a cornerstone to the band's sound on the first few albums, but has faded with their most recent work. "Happier" sounded great though, with layered vocal lines and harmonies locking perfectly, and it made me wish for a few more old classic to make an appearance in the encore: "Two Points For Honesty" or "Either Way," perhaps. They didn't.

The band dispensed with the tradition of leaving the stage for the encore, instead opting just to dim the lights so they could switch instruments. They played through "This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart," another cut from their latest, where Ryan Miller put a disco ball on his head,  an exercise that seemed rather pointless, but was hilarious nonetheless. Sadly, I wasn't able to get a good picture of it. Andrew McMahon joined the band onstage for "Careful," the band's other hit from Keep it Together, playing piano and singing the choruses. He also joined them for their cover of Peter Bjorn & John's song "Young Folks," the strangest choice for a show closer I've seen at any concert I've ever attended. I was hoping that the band would play "Parachute," the title track and closer from their first album, and probably still their best song. As the band approaches the end of their summer tour, I can't figure out why the idea to play that song hasn't come up: it would be a treat for fans to hear something off the debut (which almost never gets any representation in their live sets), and would work perfectly as an end-of-summer closing track. It would have worked particularly well in the outdoor environment the band was presented with last night, but alas, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied by their encore.

Guster is a band known for their live shows, and despite my gripes over their set encore, it's not at all hard to see why: Miller is a great singer and a charismatic frontman, while Gardner and Luke Reynolds (who recently joined the band) are both multi-instrumentalists who augmented the band's songs with everything from banjo to trumpet last night. And then of course there's drummer Brian Rosenworcel, who's always fun to watch, if only because he plays most of the band's songs with his bare hands. And on top of all of that, the band has six good to great albums to draw material from: it's no wonder that they have so many die hard fans. On the other hand, Jack's Mannequin is essentially Andrew McMahon, who's prowess and a singer, songwriter, frontman and pianist makes the music, and all though he didn't have many die-hard fans in the audience last night, he still, in my opinion, put on the better show. In my perfect world, Guster would have gone first and Jack's Mannequin would have closed things out (and gotten to do a few more songs), but that's a small complaint for what was a great evening of music. Either way, I'm glad I finally got to see Jack's Mannequin, and I'm glad it was with a pair of acts as good as Lady Danville and Guster. Bring on that new album, Andrew.

People and Things drops on October 4th.

Jack's Mannequin

1. My Racing Thoughts
2. Holiday From Real
3. Annie Use Your Telescope
4. Crashing
5. The Mixed Tape
6. Amy, I
7. Last Straw
8. Swim
9. Bloodshot
10. Made For Each Other/You Can Breathe
11. Bruised
12. Rescued
13. Dark Blue
14. La La Lie

1. Barrel of a Gun
2. Architects & Engineers
3. The Captain
4.Center of Attention
5. On the Ocean
6. Airport Song
8. This Could All Be Yours
9. Hang On
10. Come Downstairs and Say Hello
11. Do You Love Me
12. Ramona
13. Manifest Destiny
14. What You Call Love
15. Amsterdam
16. Happier

17. This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart
18. Careful
19. Young Folks (Peter Bjorn & John Cover)

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