Live: The Manichean at The Alley

manichean2THE ALLEY THEATRE — 6/28/13: Sometimes a show is just a show. That sounds sad, but it’s the truth; not every show is mindblowingly awesome, and even the good ones are just “hey, that was cool”-level good, most of the time. Call me a cynic if you want, but I’ve been to a ton of shows over the years, and only a handful have ever risen above that level — the rest are fun, to be sure, but also kind of a dime a dozen.

However, that first statement above also has an immediate flip-side corollary to it, which is that sometimes a show is something wholly beyond a by-the-numbers “show,” something that transcends the everyday reality of bands getting up on a stage to sing and yell and bash away at guitars, drums, and keyboards. That previously-mentioned handful of bands that went above the “just a show” level, those are the ones I remember, decades on, and tell stories about, and smile wistfully when they pop back up in my brain.

The past June, I got to see one of those special, lives-with-you-forever shows, when the folks from The Manichean invited SCR to come and witness their second-ever performance of their stunning 2012 album, LOVERS, at The Alley Theatre. Fellow SCR writer Jason Smith had gone to the first show, last year, and had come back raving about how incredible it was, so I headed Downtown with a little bit of a flutter in my chest, both from excitement and fear.

What if the show didn’t match up to my own expectations? What if it was — and yeah, the thought did occur to me — just another show, albeit on a different stage? Granted, every show I’ve ever see The Manichean perform has been unique and strange and wonderful, so the odds were against the latter worry from the very start, but still, I was nervous.

Once we were inside, however, I started to realize how different this was likely to be; with the bar and quirky chamber-music group Two Star Symphony playing softly in the lobby of the theater, it felt less like the prelude to a band and more like an art opening or a play. The latter of which, honestly, is probably closest to reality, in part because The Manichean has always been a very theatrical band, one that’s conscious not only of the musical elements of a performance but of the physical elements of that performance, as well.

manichean1Into the theater we went, and found ourselves sitting in front-row chairs barely four feet away from a set of rugs and instruments and microphones, where I assumed the band would be playing. Beyond the gear sat the actual “stage” itself, a raised, multi-level dais of wood, and the rest of the crowd sat in rows on all three sides of the band area.

The lights went down, and in the dimness the members of the band made their way out from backstage, all wearing somber, dark, almost funereal clothing, and began playing, starting right up like they’d just paused to go get a cigarette out back or something. They launched immediately into LOVERS, and it truly, honestly was like watching the curtain come up on a moody, poignant play of some kind, one where you’re never quite sure how the plot fits together but which you can’t stop watching, even still.

That uncertainty lingered throughout the whole performance, at least for me, and it somehow made it even more compelling. Songwriters Cory Sinclair and Justice Tirapelli-Jamail have a masterful way with oblique lyrics, the kind that make you think you almost know what they’re talking about, but not quite, and frontman Sinclair did his best to make things even murkier.

In fact, no offense meant to the rest of the band, but Sinclair himself was the star of the show; how could he not be? He was The Narrator, the point of view we were all trying to follow as he fell in love and lost and tried to pick himself back up again. He and co-star Asli Omar of The Tontons were utterly perfect in their playful back-and-forth on the stage, chasing one another languidly around with sly smiles and gentle touches.

They did it so well that I found myself feeling heartsick when things began to go awry, and “She” (which I believe was the name of Omar’s character) drifted away, leaving Sinclair’s character bereft and bitter, flailing around the stage.

Musically speaking, it was lush and gorgeous, intricate but heartfelt like a less-stilted, more-swooning Decemberists, skirting the line between fragile pop and beefier rock sounds. Make no mistake: the band can absolutely cut loose and explode when they want to. As they played, I kept coming back to the aforementioned Decemberists, but also to the woozy beauty of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeremy Enigk’s baroque folk-pop, and even the brittle romanticism of Trembling Blue Stars.

20131023-181142.jpgI’m a bit embarrassed to say that I can’t claim to know where one song started and another began, but truthfully, that would be beside the point anyway. LOVERS the album shares a lot of stylistic and melodic threads throughout, and The Manichean wove them beautifully into the performance, crafting them into something that went far beyond a mere “album.” Sitting there, watching and listening and feeling near-mesmerized, it felt more like symphonic movements than anything else.

The first “movement,” which was essentially the first half of the show — there was an intermission midway through — was lively at first, and wild and vivacious, but then turned dark and raw and painful when things went bad, as they always do. When we came back into the theater, however, for the second “movement,” it was like a dark cloud had lifted. The band came back in without their dark-hued clothing, dressed down instead in summery shirts (or less, in a few cases), and they seemed at peace with themselves again.

Then Omar came back to the stage for the reunion with Sinclair, a reunion blessed by a holy monk played by fellow local singer/musician Tyagaraja, who himself had a wordless solo that literally brought tears to my eyes. When we’d left the theater after the first act of the show, I’d felt anxious and a literally sick I was so affected by the painful not-quite-ending of our two heroes’ love affair; coming back, it felt like everything was right and good and just how it was supposed to be. Love, without any strings, baggage, or pain attached.

20131023-181020.jpgAnd then, it was done. We applauded as everyone took their respective bows, and I felt myself reeling, shocked into almost-dumbness by the whole thing. I’m fairly sure I tried to chat with people as we milled around the lobby afterwards, but I remember having trouble even forming sentences for a while afterwards.

In the months since, I keep returning to the f that’s not evidence of how awestruck I was in the show’s aftermath, I don’t know what is.

Afterword: After the show, to my shame and regret, I dropped the ball. We hurriedly packed up our things for a long-planned vacation to visit my wife’s family in London, and I brought my laptop with us, intent on furiously typing down all my observations about the show from across the Pond. But I didn’t. I started and stopped this article a good dozen times, writing and erasing lines over and over again, and then the whole thing fell apart entirely. Thanks to the kind, awesome people in The Manichean for graciously inviting us to join in, and apologies for not doing this months and months sooner. END

(All photos by Jason Smith.)

Live review by . Live review posted Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013. Filed under Features, Live Reviews.

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One Response to “Live: The Manichean at The Alley”

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Co-Pilot + My Education + Lions of Tsavo + Funeral Horse + He’s My Brother She’s My Sister + Tyagaraja + Lone Star Rally + More on February 20th, 2014 at 11:23 am

    […] aspects, just sit back and listen to the man’s voice. Oh, lord, can the guy sing. As mentioned a little while ago right here, when I saw him perform with The Manichean this past summer, his wordless, Dead Can […]

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