Our culture is obsessed with the notion of “the best” in every conceivable category, which may explain why so much journalistic writing over the past decade fits into the “best of list” genre. It’s generally intellectually lazy stuff, involving a healthy dose of recycled material, but rarely failing to do the trick, in terms of click bait, because everyone has an opinion on everything, and everyone is eager to share that opinion.
It’s not surprising, then, that I am often asked during live chats, via e-mail or through social media posts, to name the greatest band ever to have come out of Buffalo. This always feels like a set up to me. Why narrow it down? Why take the bait, and pick one artist above others, thereby alienating fans of the neglected artist, or maybe even that artist?
The notion of “the best” should not apply to music, really. It’s just not quantifiable; there are far too many examples of primitive music played by non-virtuosos that is as moving and powerful as complex music performed by folks we might legitimately refer to as geniuses. I will never take the cop-out approach that suggests music can be interpreted on a wholly subjective basis – sometimes, bad isn’t radical, it’s just bad, after all. But we react to music for a variety of reasons, and we tend it interpret it emotionally. So one can pick one’s personal favorite, but labels like “the best” are, er, best avoided.
But because I’ve danced around the question for what feels like forever by this point, I’m going to offer my pick for the finest band to have emerged from Buffalo over the past, oh, let’s just say quarter century, for argument’s sake. There are many to choose from, but if I’m to take the plunge, I have to go with Mercury Rev.
Why? Well, even though the band hasn’t lived in Buffalo in decades, I still think of it as Buffalo’s Radiohead. No other group has done so much to bring a progressive take on expansive art-rock traditions into the late 20th/early 21st century zeitgeist. The band can claim at least three masterpieces – “Deserter’s Songs,” (1998) “The Secret Migration” (2005) and “See You On the Other Side” (1995) – but every Mercury Rev album is worth owning. Of how many artists can you really say the same?
That Mercury Rev is revered as an iconic exemplar of contemporary art-rock in Europe, while relegated to cult status in its own country, is a small tragedy. The bigger tragedy is this – Mercury Rev has not released a new album since the 2008 one-two punch of “Snowflake Midnight” and “Strange Attractor,” and hasn’t performed in Buffalo since a truly epic 1999 gig in the Showplace Theatre. (This show makes my personal Top 10 list, since we’re speaking of the “best of” mentality. A 2001 Mercury Rev appearance at the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto also makes that list.)
Mercury Rev was slated to perform in the Tralf Music Hall in 2006 – my interview with guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak adorned the cover of the Gusto the day prior to the scheduled show – but the death of a family member meant the cancellation of the Buffalo gig and the tour. In the time since, the band has appeared almost exclusively in Europe, where it often performs before festival-sized crowds.
But here at home? Nothing. Mercury Rev seems to be engulfed in radio silence.
Mercury Rev producer, former bassist and longtime cohort Dave Fridmann dropped a subtle mind-bomb for fans of the band when, via journal entries posted on davefridmann.com, he posted this note from his studio log a year ago: “February 19, 2014: Mercury Rev is here.”
The “here” Fridmann was referring to is his Tarbox Road Recording Studios, located in Cassadaga, not too far from the SUNY Fredonia campus where, in the late 1980s, then-student Fridmann first recorded his friends Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper and David Baker, musicians and artistic mavericks who would form the core of Mercury Rev. Did Fridmann’s journal entry mean a new Mercury Rev album was on the way? A year later, we’re still not sure.
The last we heard from Davis, via the Mercury Rev official Facebook page, it seemed that the band had come to doubt its ability to connect with new listeners in a meaningful way. In August of 2014, Donahue wrote this, in response to fans clamoring for a good old fashioned American tour from the Rev:
“While in the mists of recent recordings it can be a bit less complicated to play one off festivals now and then in Europe where, as you say, our fan base has thankfully allowed us to return (home) with enough to continue the studio process in a way that, maybe in the coming futures we will be able to here, you know, reaching new listeners in America. I suspect very few even remember our name from those days past, as there are so many younger, and savvy bands at the moment. Still, I am constantly in amazement at how so many of you on this page offer so much encouragement and so sincerely... It will be a really big task to become part of the musical world of a young set in the US again, not to mention gathering enough kindling wood to light the recall of our ‘contemporarily aged’ friends too... So even as we now put the final brush strokes on the new LP the clutch remains engaged in our (consciousness) on climbing back into the Econo Van and making our way West and South and North and up down in and around every jug handle between Bangor and San Diego.”
Let’s hope that’s the case. Because we remember you, Jonathan Donahue. And we’re eager to reconnect with the “best” Buffalo-born band of its generation.