On a rainy Saturday night, as much of South Florida’s live music community gathered in West Palm Beach to see Zac Brown Band, a much smaller group of fans came together at Fort Lauderdale’s Revolution Live and was gifted with a show that proved to be as satisfying as it was cathartic.
Manchester Orchestra’s Million Masks of God tour, named for the album of the same name released by the Atlanta group earlier this year, arrived in South Florida with a superb duo of support acts in tow and ultimately provided a packed crowd with nearly four full hours of sublime rock music.
The show was my first in an indoor venue since before the pandemic, and served as a stark reminder of the communal nature of club gigs and the magic that can be achieved by live music inside four walls. The location also afforded attendees the privilege to not worry about the weather issues that have plagued outdoor concerts and festivals in recent months.
While it was slightly jarring to see band and crew members wearing masks on stage between sets (and a healthy portion of the crowd that remained masked up throughout the evening), it was the only indicator of the strange circumstances that delayed for so long the return of live music. The show did not require any vaccine checks or negative tests, a lacking condition that may have prevented the gig from being fully sold out.
Boston alt-rock trio Slothrust, which has released five studio albums over the past decade, is clearly no longer a well-kept secret as the venue was already bustling with fans when it took the stage around 8 p.m. The group was the first to perform on the stacked bill, and delivered a brief but fruitful opening set that leaned hard on Pixies-esque loud/quiet/loud dynamic shifts that elevated songs like “Crockpot” from rudimentary garage rock to something greater.
Next came St. Louis indie/emo heroes Foxing, a group riding the success of two back-to-back fantastic records in 2018’s Nearer My God and this year’s more accessible Draw Down the Moon. The band wore its diverse range of influences on its sleeve–literally–as one of its two guitarists donned a Slipknot t-shirt for the set while its drummer wore a Huey Lewis & The News shirt, irony be damned. The set, which clocked in at just under 45 minutes, was painfully short for a band with such an abundance of stellar material to work with.
Singer Conor Murphy was a revelation in his performance, alternating deftly between sung and screamed vocals and dropping to his knees at points as if overtaken by emotion during tracks like standout “Grand Paradise.” He ran the gamut of frontman eccentricities throughout the all-too-brief set, from slapping himself in the face at the beginning of the band’s performance of “The Medic,” easily its biggest hit, to playing the trumpet at points to add yet another layer to the group’s already-dense sound.
For a band like Manchester Orchestra, booking a tenacious opening act like Foxing for a tour can be a dangerous game. An aging headliner can easily run the risk of being overshadowed by a younger, more critically lauded act that’s known for stirring live performances. At the beginning of the headlining set, I was worried that would be the narrative for this show.
Manchester Orchestra’s set started out slow–it leaned heavily on the group’s two most recent records, 2017’s A Black Mile to the Surface and this year’s The Million Masks of God–and much of its first half consisted of songs that melded together into a frustrating sameness. The beginning of the set was notable for following the tracklist of The Million Masks of God for its first four songs, but without the veneer of studio production they seemed to blend together into a mush of driving rhythms without form. Thankfully, once the band began to deviate from its most recent album, the set began to come to life. Early highlight “Top Notch,” the only selection of the night from the band’s 2014 album Cope, was an early highlight and marked the point where the set started to trend in the right direction.
The light show for the main set was one befitting a headliner at a mid-sized venue like Revolution, and stood as a stark improvement over the sparse visual production that accompanied the two preceding sets. The Atlanta group has been together for nearly 20 years at this point, and has certainly figured out how to lean on arena-rock tropes–scaled to size, of course–to elevate its live show.
The band is clearly more influenced by classic heavy and alternative rock than its support acts, with a sizable selection of songs that play something like an arena rock imitation, and a slight southern twang (one reminiscent at times of Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold) in frontman Andy Hull’s inflection that further differentiated their material from the two opening bands.
The almost art-rock structure and massive climax of more recent tracks such as “Dinosaur” adn “The Internet” injected much-needed urgency into the main set towards its end, establishing a strong upward momentum that seemed likely to carry through the end of the show. Unfortunately, solo acoustic number “Telepath” killed all momentum at the end of the set, but it was quickly regained at the beginning of the encore with “Shake it Out” the oldest track performed all night by the band and easily the most traditional rock song.
By the time the final notes of closing song “The Silence” rang through the venue, I’d been sufficiently convinced that this once one-dimensional band has grown up significantly with its core audience is faithfully along for the ride. The night’s most outstanding moments came when the sing-along voice of the crowd blossomed into something blissfully inescapable, as it did frequently towards the end of the show and during the encore.
From the pit on the lowest level of Revolution Live, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of fans, and listening to their voices and the sound from the stage bouncing off the venue’s walls, I was reminded again how communal and vital the live music experience is for those of us who treasure it. It’s good to be back.
Manchester Orchestra setlist:
Angel of Death
Shake It Out