LIVE: Manchester Orchestra @ Union Chapel

By Katherine Allvey

Never has a show fitted a venue more perfectly than Manchester Orchestra’s set at Union Chapel. From the moment that the opening lines of ‘I Know How To Speak’ open a chasm into our emotions and frontman Andy Hull’s falsetto notes swoop and soar up to the bare-boarded gothic ceiling, we know that this is a truly perfect combination of sight, sound and space. 

It going without saying that this was no ordinary Manchester Orchestra show. Rescheduled from May, ‘An Evening With Manchester Orchestra’ is a three night showcase featuring only two members of the band (Hull and bassist Andy Prince), of which this was the opening night. It’s also a sober show; with respect to the venue’s role as a place of worship, only soft drinks are allowed inside. We sip our diet cokes on long wooden pews scratched by a century of devotion, gazing up at the stained visages of unnamed saints lit by cast iron chandeliers. While phones are permitted, no one uses them. There would be no instagram live streams of the night, or recording a clip for your friends who didn’t manage to get tickets. To use a phone, or even to acknowledge that the outside world, feels like inviting an intrusion. We sit silently, open mouthed, awestruck at what can be created from so little. Some rest their heads on their partner’s shoulders, an arm wrapped around them for comfort. One man clasps his hands over his mouth and nose, his elbows resting on the back of the pew in front of him, tears streaming freely over his stubble. 

As ‘I Know How To Speak’ gives way to ‘The Grocery’, we begin to process what we’re hearing. With the barest of instrumental touches from the bass and the occasional feather-soft brush on the guitar strings, Manchester Orchestra’s sound has been transfigured from indie rock to purest modern folk. It sits shyly between Bon Iver and John Martyn. The silences feel as important as each note, allowing us the briefest of pauses to enjoy the full depth of what we hear. The character of each song has been altered too in this setting and setup. The black vein of sorrow that runs just beneath the skin of the Manchester Orchestra sound has been vivisected to allow the full pain and isolation out into each song. ‘The Gold’ becomes a vulnerable plea for mercy from an unknown tormentor. ‘Deer’ pulses with the slow, ever-present ache of wishing you could make things right with the people you’ve lost. ‘Angel of Death’ exposes you to the cold, bright light of realisation.

“Yesterday was like three days ago,” mumbles Hull with a grin. He’s awkward onstage, and somewhat jet lagged. “We’ve been looking forward to these shows for so long…” Someone from the crowd shouts out the name of a song and Hull laughs, obliging the heckler with the out-of-character ’50 Cent’. It’s a sweet song, and comes across as endearingly plaintive and insecure. As they finish, we recognise the opening strains of ‘Capital Karma’ and a cheer is released for the first time, forty minutes into Manchester Orchestra’s set. It’s not as if we haven’t enjoyed the other songs; more that we’re overcome with passion for what we’re hearing that we want to break the unspoken rules of the space and give voice to our appreciation. Throughout their set, Manchester Orchestra conjure emotions from the depths of your chest that can’t fully be named, merely linked to scenarios. A cover of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘My Backwards Walk’ is bathed in royal blue and sounds like loneliness when you are separated from your loved ones by time and distance. 

Hull asks what the time is. We don’t really know either. Every time check reveals that either time has jumped forward by half an hour, or a song has stretched for an hour in three minutes. Someone calls out that it’s seven o’clock in a desperate bid to get them to play for longer. Unfortunately, this show is on a Sunday and the curfew is strict. Our hearts, emptied by ninety minutes of emotional drainage, are re-inflated by the icy hope and piano caresses of ‘Rear View’. Hull checks his watch and flicks through his notebook and, with two minutes to go, a member of staff runs out with a notes and holds it up to Hull to remind him that he’s on the clock as if he was a child at a debating contest. He takes the risk and the high piano notes of ‘Bed Head’ twinkle like tissue paper stars, taking us a scandalous three minutes over time. 

As soon as Manchester Orchestra say goodnight, a pre-recorded message rings out to remind us that the bar will be open for another ten minutes and to take care on the stairs. We land back on earth with a jolt, suddenly aware of bodies which ache from a static night crammed onto unforgiving benches. Our minds have been elsewhere, elevated beyond the mundane, thanks to a incredibly potent evening with Manchester Orchestra.