Doing the Math With Manchester Orchestra

Manchester Orchestra took the stage in San Diego to a packed house at Soma last Wednesday on the tail-end of their North American tour with Cage the Elephant.

Manchester Orchestra kicked off the co-headlining bill with no sign of wear after weeks on the road in support of their new record Simple Math, which opened at No. 8 on the Billboard Rock Albums chart. 

What's immediately evident is that their sound is big, a forceful, stadium-size noise generated by band mates Robert McDowell on guitar, Jonathan Corley on bass, Chris Freeman on keys and just about everything else, and the band's newest member, drummer Tim Very. Beginning their set with brazen riffs and chilling bass tones of "Pride," frontman Andy Hull was deliberate in his execution of courageous vulnerability, wrapped up in dirty Southern Rock. 

That's what this band is known for; it's what has transformed them from an Atlanta indie-rock band  sharing van space with the emo and post-punk legends of their day, like Thrice, Brand New and Kevin Devine. Now, though, Manchester Orchestra have catapulted into mainstream success with songs like the fiercely Weezer-inspired hits like "The Only One" and "Shake it Out," with regular late-night television performances and even a stint sharing the stage with Kings of Leon at Madison Square Garden. 

Hull quickly changed gears for the next song, a new track called "April Fool," a quick-paced pop rock jam in the vein of the album's theme that Hull described as "a story about a 23-year-old who questions everything from marriage to love to religion to sex." It's that exploration that is penetrative, wrestling with spiritual conflict, desire and philosophical undertones that call for adolescent fist pumps and crowd dives. 

Freeman's staccato keys opened a wildly welcomed "I've Got Friends," off Manchester Orchestra's last record, Mean Everything to Nothing, falling into grizzly guitar solos and a mid-show chant of "Manchester! Manchester!,: which prompted McDowell to tease Hull, encouraging the crowd to chant his name. Hull jokingly responded, saying, "This is an abuse of power!". 

Shifting from some of their earliest songs off "I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child" juxtaposed with more polished tracks off Simple Math revealed their transformation as a band. From the emotionally charged "I Can Barely Breathe" to the title track "Simple Math" and "Pensacola" it's clear that their existential questioning has led to some serious growth. The formula for their success remains. When asking those questions, their fans will answer. 

Nada Alic runs the San Diego-based music blog Friends With Both Arms and works in artist relations for the nonprofit organization Invisible Children. Follow her updates on Twitter or contact her directly.

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