Concert Review: Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness @ Empire Live,
Andrew McMahon’s music has floated in my peripheral listening for a while, always popping up under the “Fans Also Like” tab in Spotify when I’m listening to bands such as Passenger, Vinyl Theater, and Young Rising Suns. So I was super grateful to get the opportunity to see him live.
I showed up 15 minutes ahead of the posted show time to find the first opener almost done with his set. Empire Live (or whomever) had decided to begin the show early, and this left me awfully disappointed, and not just because I missed my window for shots. The first supporting act, Griffin William Sherry, was one I had seen back in December as he opened for The Ballroom Thieves—I was looking forward to seeing him play again because I had loved what I heard the first go-round. I was fortunate to catch the (still) unreleased song that made me fall in love with his sound last time. That tune was “Reflections.” It was just as compelling on the second go, and even in the lack of a full band, it contained the emotions and lyrical poetry that really move the song forward as the storytelling unwinds. After the show, I did manage to threaten him with the most dangerous weapon in my arsenal—my utmost disappointment—if he didn’t release that song soon. Clearly shaken to his core, Griffin told me, no REASSURED me, that it was in progress. It better be. But given that I had missed almost his entire set, I appreciated that he had offered some insight into the crowd’s behavior and that little nugget of info was that he didn’t feel he had hooks in the audience, not until he closed his set with a cover of a Beatles song, “Rocky Racoon.”
The second supporting act, Texas-born rockers Unlikely Candidates, brought a different kind of energy to the stage. Where Griffin was composed and centered, the Unlikely Candidates vibrated around the stage with what I might consider the chaotic neutral energy. Frontman Kyle Morris even looked chaotic, with his head of red hair sticking up in every which way, a loud yellow sports jacket, and an even louder red mandala-patterned shirt, unbuttoned to the sternum allowing for his thatch of chest hair to stick out. Between the outfit and the neatly-trimmed beard, it all felt very Bee Gees or Tony Orlando in an endearing way. Their stage presence was fantastic, and made use of any and all stage space available to them. It was super fun to watch them perform, especially when they went into a wild, funky, and somewhat manic version of A-Ha’s classic “Take On Me,” which I really enjoyed. The audience did too.
Headliner Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness took everybody by surprise. When the house lights darkened, and the audience lay in wait for the man of the hour to take the stage, the stage remained empty. Rather, a murmur was heard rolling through the crowd, and within the mob of people was a flashlight that followed a man as he moved about the bodies, which parted around him like Moses during the Exodus from Egypt. Their faces were bright and gleaming, phones trained on the man who sang as he moved. He cranked the handle on his Alchemical Music Box, a machine that looks very old and as if it belongs at some sideshow, but is in fact a modern contraption that I had to Google and one which was perhaps the most hipster item I have seen in a long while. He sang through the melancholic story of “Nobody Tells You When You’re Young,” a song that really spoke to me—a song that chronicles the heartache of getting older and all of the changes that accompany it. By the end of “When You’re Young,” he had climbed up onto the stage and threw himself behind the keys of the sticker-adorned grand piano center stage and immediately into the more upbeat “Paper Rain.”
Even though he was seated behind the ivories for most of the show, Andrew had great stage presence and didn’t seem to rely on his good looks—though I’m sure the intense blue eyes, styled blonde-ish hair, tattoos, and crooked grin made more than a few swoons with a face somewhere in the ether between boyish good looks and rugged traditional masculinity. There was no grandiose piano playing; it was so seamlessly integrated with the storytelling of his music. Something I noticed is that in most bands, the musicians are all holding their own and weaving into one unit, something akin to a French braid. Andrew McMahon in The Wilderness felt completely in sync from the get-go; everything was plaited cleanly together at the root. They were one of the most cohesive live bands I’ve seen in a long time. It also was one of the longest shows, if not the longest, I’ve been to from start to finish. He played a whopping 24-song setlist. That’s more than half of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour setlist. Audience members certainly got treated to a healthy variety of his catalog, and they ate it all up with joy.
I never knew what was going to come next. He climbed into a giant inflatable giraffe (or was it a llama?) and surfed over the audience doing shots of what he claimed was tequila. He threw out an elementary school-style color block parachute and danced through the audience as they held it over him. He pulled it back onto the stage and wrapped it around himself like a shawl, and it was just one of quite a few times he stood with his black Chuck Taylors planted firmly on the keys of the piano before leaping off.
In the words of Jim Steinman and Michael Lee Aday, “Stop it, boy! What do ya think you’re doin’? That’s no way to treat an expensive musical instrument!”
But the strings and hammers of that majestic expensive musical instrument were well-worn and well-loved, and I’m sure supported him in more ways than just supporting his weight. The “Protect Trans Kids” and “Abort the Court (with an image of a coat hanger crossed out)” stickers and the cape of rainbow-colored lights he donned at one point (passively) spoke volumes about who and what he supported.
I had some idea of what to expect from this show by Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, but I expected it to be more of a laid-back and folksy evening. Instead, he took the stories told in folk lyrics and theatrically set them to rock music. And he didn’t just stick to the “in the Wilderness” songs; he sang songs from his other projects—Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin.
Between the band’s impressive sound and honest songwriting, dynamic stage presence, and extensive set list, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness truly offered the best of all worlds.
Griffin William Sherry (Setlist unavailable)
- Your Love Could Start A War
- Someone to Remind Me
- High Low
- Take On Me (A-Ha! cover)
- Oh My Dear Lord
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
- Nobody Tells You When You’re Young
- Paper Rain
- I Woke Up In A Car (Something Corporate)
- I’m Ready (Jack’s Mannequin)
- The Astronaut (Something Corporate)
- Lying on the Hood Of Your Car
- Fire Escape
- Amy, I (Jack’s Mannequin)
- Hurricane (Something Corporate)
- Walking in my Sleep
- Built to Last
- High Dive
- The Resolution (Jack’s Mannequin)
- Cavanaugh Park (Something Corporate, with elements of Vanessa Carlton’s “1000 Miles”)
- Smoke & Ribbons
- Dark Blue (Jack’s Mannequin)
- Last Rites
- 21 and Invisible (Something Corporate)
- Cecilia and the Satellite
Your photos are just dynamite! Like your sharp writing too.
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